How Much is an Education Worth

College is a ladder to success, an eye opening experience…and ridiculously expensive. Lately, there has been a great deal of debate surrounding the idea of making college tuition free, and following the model of countries such as Germany and Sweden. This is increasingly attractive due to recent reports that the average college student is now graduating with 30 thousand dollars worth of debt. While free college, or even just free community college is not an effective solution, it is clear that colleges must be prevented from constantly raising their costs above the inflation-adjusted rates, as it is proving detrimental to our economy.

Bernie Sanders has voiced his support for free college, and even Obama has advocated for making community college free. Sanders simply has no way to pay for his fundamentally flawed plan, so there is little use discussing it. Obama`s proposal has met with more popular success and is actually plausible. Despite this, it does not address the root of the issue, and is thus not an effective solution. Very few people are bared from community college because of tuition costs, and the main issue with these institutions is their low success rates. After three years, 80% of full-time community college students have still not received their 2-year degree. While some still graduate at the 4 and 5-year mark, the fact remains that they are spending far more time in college than they need too, and many end up dropping out. Moreover, it is not the tuition that is causing these problems, or even preventing people from going to community college. A 2012 analysis found that in Wisconsin and North Dakota, where tuition rates are far beyond the national average, there were the same graduation rates as California, which has the lowest cost and offers free tuition if a student receives a Pell Grant. So overall, tuition is not a barrier for nearly all students looking to attend community college. There are generous grant programs, and regardless the costs are quite low. But because community colleges utterly fail to retain their students and offer adequate education or support, they are poor investments and are not the cheap and effective option that this country needs.

Furthermore, the notion of making college free in general is extremely misleading. People like to point to Germany and Sweden as models for free college, but the fact is they don’t actually provide this to their citizens. In Sweden in 2013, the average student was graduating with $19,000 in debt, and there was a higher proportion of students graduating with the debt than in the US. This debt is not from high tuition costs, but instead from excessive rent and living rates. Turning to Germany, similar problems are visible. In order to provide college to all of its citizens, Germany has overburdened its taxpayers, and has them pay far more than their US counterparts. Additionally, only about 30% of young Germans attend college, less than half the percentage of Americans. So even if we were to raise taxes to the level the Germans have, it still would not subsidize even half of our students.  There is not really any such thing as “free college,” since the cost is always put back onto the students and their families, with methods that would still fail to provide equal education in America.

The real solution is in making college affordable, not free. Every year, colleges raise their tuition costs, because naturally inflation makes our money less valuable. However, they are not just raising it to compensate for inflation, they typically raise it 3.4% above this number, each and every year. This drives up costs dramatically and causes students to be unable to afford higher education. While 3.4% may not sound like a lot, in fact this accounts for thousands and tens of thousands of dollars in difference. Since 1980, the cost of public college has quadrupled, and at private colleges it has tripled. As a result of skyrocketing prices, the government has attempted to give grants and make student loans more accessible to students, but this has backfired. According to Columbia University, “16% of all Pell Grant aid is passed through to schools in the form of higher effective prices.”  By giving students money to pay for college, the government has been contributing to the rise in college prices. This vicious cycle has trapped countless college students in debt-nightmares and must end. Since grants have failed, and it is clear that colleges are not willing to hold their prices steady, it is clear the only way to make college affordable is to somehow stop colleges from raising their costs by such a significant percentage each year. Incentives in the form of research grants or tax breaks could be offered to schools for keeping their prices at inflation adjusted levels, or the federal government could use their influence to stop these organizations from continuing their price hike. Regardless of the method, colleges must stop raising the cost of tuition.

The issue of student debt needs to be dealt with in a timely manner, before it does any more damage to our economy. Encouraging more students to attend community college is not going to be the best solution, and the permanent solution to this issue is to stop colleges from raising their costs by such a high margin year to year. Free college is ideal, but it’s not realistic. Even countries purporting to have free college don’t in reality, as the costs are just passed onto students through exorbitant taxes, room and board, and food costs. Instead, college should be made affordable, for the benefit of students and the nation as a whole.