Is Free Enough?

“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”
John F. Kennedy

The history of free vs. tuition-based education is a long a twisted tail for the United States, one we are still debating. President George Washington encouraged public education as part of his farewell speech.

“Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge. In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened.”
George Washington, 1796

When the United States formed, there was no public education system. Children were educated at home by either parents or privet tutors.

The first schools in the US were established by religious groups to teach literacy for bible study. The first public school systems (covering areas more than a single town) began to emerge in New England in the 1840s. In 1852 Massachusetts passes a law making elementary education compulsory. Something that the rest of the United States would not do until the 1900s.

Today we have a system of publicly funded compulsory education from Kindergarten to High School. While there has been disturbing decrees in government funding for public higher education, historical governments have been involved there as well. Examples of this are land grant colleges and university, the GI bill, and Pell grants.

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion about free public education at the college and university level. The current debate over free college education was kicked off by President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. He proposed to cut the cost of community college.
“That’s why I’m sending this Congress a bold new plan to lower the cost of community college — to zero.” Since then, there have been arguments at the national level about the validity and cost of a free community college education. However, just like with elementary and high school education states are leading the way while the federal government debates.

There are currently 20 states that offer some form of free community college (College “Free for All” in Almost 20 States!, by Susan Dutca-Lovell, Scholarship, January 8, 2019 4:15 PM, retrieved from on May 29, 2019) New York is even offering its program to 4 year college students. Most of these programs are last dollar programs; they cover whatever is left over after financial aid is exhausted.

While these state-level programs will undoubtedly make a college education more accessible, I wonder if free is enough. Higher education and its interactions with society can be a complicated process with a large number of pitfalls. However, it may be even more complicated than we ever thought. While earning a degree increases your earning potential. According to the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, lifetime earning potentials are:

  1. High school diploma is $1.3 million
  2. Associates degree is $1.7
  3. Bachelors degree is $2.2 million
  4. An advanced degree is $2.7 million

How does a college degree improve graduates’ employment and earnings potential?

Research suggests earnings potentials might not be as clear cut as these numbers indicate. All of us have heard the comment; “It doesn’t matter where you start your undergraduate education. All that matters is where your final degree is from.” Vanderbilt Law professor Joni Hersch published a paper, Catching Up Is Hard to Do: Undergraduate Prestige, Elite Graduate Programs, and the Earnings Premium that challenges the comment that only the final institution matters.

In her research, she compared students that earned their bachelors degrees from a lower tier (Carnegie Classification system) school than their graduate or professional degree. With thoughts that got both their bachelors and graduate/professional degree from higher tier schools. She found students who moved up to a higher tier school for their terminal degree had a salary that averaged $52 thousand less than graduates that started at a higher tier school. That salary difference works out to nearly $1.6 million over a 30-year career.

Additionally, it appears to be challenging to move up in from a lower tier school when applying to graduate school. Nearly 33% of all tier 4 bachelors recipients go on to earn a graduate degree. However, only 7% of these tier 4 bachelors students earn their graduate degrees from a tier 1 institution. Nearly 66% of all tier 4 bachelors students that pursue an advanced degree earned their degree from a tier 4 institution. The low student transfer rate suggests that it is difficult to move up in tiers for graduate degrees. Even if students do move up, they don’t have the same earning potential.

While making college free is a big step in making a college education accessible, several other questions need to be asked and addressed. Why do students that transfer from lower tiers to higher tiers still earn less? Even if there is a difference in rigor between different tiers the students received their final degree from the higher tier, there should be no difference. Professor Hersch suggests that the difference might come from things outside academics, like networking, family connections, and job/career assistance. Additionally, Why is the transfer rate up to the school tiers so low? How does the addition of an associates degree or community college effect these issues?

Therefore, merely making community college and even four-year state schools free will not completely level the playing field. We probably need to invest in accessory programs to help students make connections, network, gain real mentors, and gain an understanding of what their career will require. But most importantly, we need to do research and determine if problems are internal to academia, dependent on society or more likely both. Then we need to find a way to fix them. Free is part of the solution; however, we need to remember free is not all of it. If we don’t address the rest, we will still be wasting all that human potential.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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