Many are familiar with the concept of there being no such thing as a free lunch. So the idea of a free college degree seems even more complicated, though you could probably fit both in a brown paper bag. Because little in life is free, the question is more accurately this: Should the students have to pay?
That was the debate in a recent Wall Street Journal article, which featured a “Yes” argument from Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab — a professor of higher-education policy at Temple University — and a “No” from Dr. Neal McCluskey, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. Goldrick-Rab positioned free college as an investment in society as crucial as high school. McCluskey pointed to the the potential unfair tax burden on those who pursue other forms of non-college education.
They agreed about as much as KIRO Radio’s Tom and Curley.
“If you pay for something, you care more about it,” Curley said. “What if the restaurant down the street was free? Can you imagine how long the line would be around the corner? In fact, you fell for this when Denny’s offered free breakfast after the Super Bowl. You stood in a long line and realized that it’s not worth waiting for a bunch of pancakes.”
“I did indeed,” Tom admitted.
Because people are presumably more in need of education than pancakes, the crux of the argument rests on whether a college education should be borne by taxpayers. Tom notes that increased access to college can be an effective incubator for success and innovation.
“We don’t know which one of those people is going to be the next innovative Steve Jobs type or Bill Gates,” Tom said. “The idea of having everybody educated lifts the economy.”
Curley counters that “the majority of people going to college are fairly well off. So the parents who make $200,000 combined, suddenly go, ‘Well there’s $20,000 we don’t have to spend every year. Thanks poor people who have no intention of going to college. Thanks for taking your tax dollars and giving it to me even though I don’t need it.”
“But a lot of those poor people could end up in college,” Tom said.
Free college in Seattle
Tuition costs have been front and center in Seattle. Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed in her mayoral campaign to provide tuition for every Seattle public high school graduate. They could go to any community college in Washington state. It would be funded with $4.3 to $5 million in its first year and $7 million after that. She recently signed an executive order adding a second free year at South Seattle College, and plans to expand it using funds from the family and education levy and the Seattle soda tax, among other sources.
The most recent figures on student debt from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York are $1.4 trillion nationwide, with $24.4 billion of that coming from Washington state.
“Let me ask you,” Curley said. “Bob Smith has no intention of sending his kids to college, but the government will take his money and give it to you so you can send your kids to college. Are you OK with taking Bob Smith’s money?”
“If we commit as a society, then yes,” Tom said.