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Why Shouldn't Education Be Free?

Students hang banner below the historic clock tower of the Cooper Union Foundation building in New York City during a 2012 December occupation in protest of the possibility of implementing tuition in the historically free school.

Why shouldn’t higher education be free for everyone?

Higher education is not a commodity. It is a social good. It’s increasingly necessary to get a good, middle-class job. A more highly educated workforce can be more adaptable and make the country more competitive. So why shouldn’t it be free for everyone?

The United States’ $1.3 trillion and growing student debt problem isn’t going away. Neither is the demand for highly educated workers, even while wages stagnate or decline. Unless something is done to lower the cost of high-quality post-secondary education and help those already dealing with student debt, we face a rather bleak future.

Fortunately, some policy makers seem to know this, though there are differences between the most popular ideas for how to best fix the broken system.

The differences between the plans largely revolve around one of the six principles behind the debt-free higher education movement: “Is the aid distributed progressively—investing most in those who may not attend or complete college, or not maximize their participation in the economy after college, due to student debt?”

In a political reality in which there have been massive cuts to funding for public higher education, with teaching jobs turned into precarious, low-wage work that makes it hard for teachers to teach, it makes sense to allocate student financial aid based on need as a way of leveling the playing field. Those who truly can afford to pay out of pocket should do so. This way, programs maintain funding and quality, while everyone is provided equal access to the public resource of higher education.

Or maybe funding for tuition-free higher education can come from a small tax on financial transactions on Wall Street, so everyone can go for free.

The point is that everyone should have the opportunity to access high-quality public higher education regardless of how much money their families have or don’t have. This isn’t just a moral argument, it’s an economic one: the more educated a workforce, the better off the economy is. Even workers with less education benefit from “education externalities.”

So let’s think big—how do we ensure every single person who wants to get an education can? That’s a challenge every candidate must answer.

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