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Free College! (What Could Go Wrong?)

President Obama addressed free community college tuition in his State of the Union address this past week.  Bernie Sanders has made free college tuition a centerpiece in his presidential run in 2016.  The topic of free college is not new.  It actually seems like something many want to implement.  After all, being a college student and having to sit through two-four years of school (maybe even more) is hard enough.  The financial burden that follows for many is even worse.  Why wouldn’t we want to eliminate that burden?

However, the free college tuition debate ignores how those increases (whether it be in tuition or taxes) affect everyone.  In attempt to create better financial aid programs geared toward lower income students universities actually raise their prices to make up for the financial loss.  For example, as US News reported, Stanford University is offering free tuition to students whose parents’ combined annual income is under $125,000.  This might seem fantastic, creating more diversity amongst the incoming classes, but Stanford likes to leave out one important fact.  The Stanford Board of Trustees has continuously voted to increase the tuition 3 percent each year, the past 10 years.  This model of free tuition for lower income students is not unique to Stanford; many universities elect to follow it.  However, these policies allow universities to ignore the actual issue, the price of their overall tuition.

This increasing trend is not uncommon.  The average price of a private four-year college has gone from $24,071 in 2003-2004 to $30,094 in 2013-2014, as illustrated in a report published in 2014 by the College Board.  The number has only continued to climb since then.  It seems to be a badge of honor in fact; the higher the tuition, the more prestigious the school.

Why don’t colleges lower their prices?  Instead of continuing the exponential increase of prices, why don’t universities lower their overall tuition prices?  It would make college more affordable for all (not just low income students).  Students in the middle, the ones who fall just above that mark, struggle just as much trying to afford college as other students.

Free college does not solve the problem.  As illustrated by universities who adopt “free college models” for lower income students, the other option is to raise the prices for other students.  If this were adopted at a national level all that would result from it would be higher taxes for people who the government deem wealthy enough to pay.  Just because universities can charge $60,000 a year for school does not mean they should.

Instead of free tuition for some, how about we try to make it more affordable college tuition for all?

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