Former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders got a lot of mileage with his proposal of “free college for all.”
Other political hopefuls have embraced the same idea, at least in part, since at some level all human beings appreciate something for nothing.
The notion is also appealing because higher education costs have exploded in both public and private institutions and lower income students graduate at lower levels than students from more advantaged families for all sorts of reasons, including money. Young Americans, not surprisingly, love this idea.
Free college for all would also be so astronomically expensive it is difficult to contemplate. But should everyone go to college at all? And, if they do, can they, their families and the larger community expect them to graduate?
The everyone to college question has been around for generations, and the answer is clearly no. Some students are not physically or mentally capable. Others are not interested in any way.
That said, technology has greatly lessened the need for semi-skilled or unskilled labor, and jobs that require a high school degree or less are hard to come by and poorly compensated. Students and their families should understand that when the college decision is being made.
Researchers have long known that college degrees are valuable personal assets. College grads earn more than nongrads almost from the outset and certainly over their working careers. Statistics show that they also live longer, are healthier, divorce less frequently and generally report happier lives.
More affluent families with generations of college goers and graduates understand the value of a college degree, and their children are more likely to graduate than the children of middle- and lower-class families with less college going experience.
The New York Times reported recently on a study by professors at Harvard and MIT that affirms the value of a college degree. Some students in the study were awarded significant scholarships while others paid their own ways. Scholarship recipients graduated at a higher rate than nonscholarship students, especially among minority and financially disadvantaged students, and those whose parents were not college grads. All of that seems to support the notion that a free education would help many students.
Here again, one size does not fit all. Students from families with a history of college-going are likely to graduate anyway, since their families expect them to do so. They may also be more college-ready, having attended high-quality, sometimes independent, schools. It makes little sense to provide tax-payer funded higher education for them.
Targeting capable students from other backgrounds for free education may make sense. American workers now compete not only against each other but against people literally on the other side of world, many in nations that do provide free educations. If we want our nation to be competitive in our global economy, our people must be prepared to do that, and education is an important aspect of that preparation. It would be expensive, of course, but not likely as expensive as a stalled economy or the long-term burden of individuals and families unable to support themselves sufficiently.
So, no, not everyone should go to college, but those who do should have the support they need to be successful. And, yes, an educated and productive workforce in a humming economy benefits all of us, not just those who received the education.
More than ever in today’s small world and global economy, we really are all in this together.