October 3, 2023
Controversy continues as to whether free college is good policy given the economic realities, accountability and responsibility issues, as well as challenges with quality, behavioral implications and funding priorities. In this article, we take a look at why college can not be free and suggest possible solutions.


It’s hard to deny the appeal of free college: who wouldn’t want free access to a great education? For many people, the cost of college can be a tremendous financial burden, so the idea of completely eliminating this burden seems appealing. However, this issue is much more complicated than it looks. In this article, we will explore why it is not feasible for college to be free and consider the possible consequences of such a policy.

The Economic Reality

One reason why free college is not feasible is the simple fact that colleges are expensive to operate and maintain. Professors, textbooks, labs, and student services all come at a cost. In fact, most public universities are subsidized by the state, which means that they rely on taxpayers’ money to keep functioning.

If colleges were suddenly made free for all, those costs would still exist, but they would have to be funded by someone else. In this case, that someone else would be taxpayers. This shift in burden will undoubtedly lead to taxpayers funding higher education for other people, which some would argue is not fair. In addition, students who graduated with debt would have paid for their education themselves, while future generations would receive a free ride thanks to the innovations of those before them. This is also a concern and represents a long-term economic burden that will be difficult to cope with for decades to come.

Merit-Based Education

There’s also an argument to be made that free college education could weaken the merit-based ethos underpinning the American education system. The reason for this is that making college free would mean taking away incentives for students to work harder during high school to secure scholarships, to earn internships to pay for college, and to work part-time during college to get by.

This could lead to a less competitive job market, with jobs being handed out based on degree and less earned via merit. In turn, this would severely be detrimental to society, as industries would lack the competitive edge required to thrive.

Furthermore, going to college should be an earned right, not a guarantee. Education is a privilege that people should work hard to attain, not just have handed to them. Wiping away the demands that come with working to pay for an education takes away accountability and responsibility, two critical ingredients for success in life.

It’s Not Free, Just A Shift In the Burden of Payment

The idea of “free college” is misleading. What it really suggests is shifting the burden of paying for college from students and parents to taxpayers. Proponents of free college often make the argument that society will save money in the long run by investing in students’ education. However, that’s not necessarily true.

The reality is that the cost of college education for taxpayers will be exorbitant, with the middle class footing much of the bill. As a result, this could lead to increased taxes, which could burden middle-class families who are already struggling. In addition, people who never attended college or those who already paid their way through college would be burdened with share taxes to support others who have decided to attend college.

Moreover, making college free creates a chain of hidden costs, including inflation, subsidizing books, food, lodging, and even luxury residential dorms and swimming pools, among others services. All of a sudden, students might be tempted to trade a scholarship for room and board, at a significant premium to their personal bottom line.

Funding Priorities

The debate around free college education generally overlooks the opportunity cost of investing in this policy. Free college education would place a significant burden on state and federal budgets, sucking up funds and resources that could be spent to tackle other societal issues.

If we are to finance a free college education, healthcare system, infrastructure, public safety, and defense would all have to take a backseat. As such, free college education is not the best use of limited fiscal resources in an already cash-strapped government environment.

Accountability & Responsibility

Society depends on young people to take accountability, learn from their own failures, and take charge of their lives. Giving people free things without hard work or accountability hinders this development process, which is critical for the success of individuals and society at large.

For instance, if students do not have the responsibility of paying for their education or working to earn good grades, they won’t learn to take ownership of their progression through college. This could lead to underperformance, lateness, absenteeism, and other problems that reducing chances of getting employed after graduation.

Moreover, training students to pay for their education is significant as it teaches them a valuable lesson regarding economics, personal finance management, and entrepreneurship. It’s walking an extra mile to earn a degree and opens up various paths to success that not necessarily require a degree.

Lower Quality of Education

Free college education will inevitably come at a cost to the institutions that provide it. It’s not difficult to imagine colleges reducing the quality of education they offer to offset the higher costs.

Options available to colleges to cut costs include reducing the number of tenured faculty members, increasing class sizes, and cutting back on student support services such as career centers and counseling. This can lead to a decline in the quality of education on offer, and negatively impact the value of the degrees students’ work so hard to achieve.

Also, students would be competing for the same classroom resources, overcrowding classes and limiting personal time with professors and support staff, factors that hinders their ability to learn and be responsible towards their education.

Behavioral Implications

You get what you pay for, and a free college education could quickly lead to a decline in motivation levels. By taking away the financial cost of the education, many students may start feeling like they’re above working hard for success.

Furthermore, having to work for an education helps show the importance of it, providing a motivating factor to study harder and put in more effort. Students who have worked and paid for their own education have often manifested that hard work and dedication leads to better grades, awards, and job opportunities.

A permanent entitlement to a free education risks creating a culture that undermines the value of hard work and an attitude that the state owes citizesn everything they desire, which has disastrous consequences on the future livelihoods of the students.


In conclusion, free college education does not solve the problem of access to education. It only shifts the burden of payment to taxpayers and creates unintended economic, structural, and behavioral problems. It is critical that education is treated as a valuable commodity that should be worked for and earned so that college graduates value their degrees, improve accountability and responsibility levels, and create a competitive job market.

Instead, instead of making college free, policymakers should focus on making college more accessible by offering better financial support for students who need it or working to reduce the costs of operating and maintaining colleges. Society can solve the problem of college access without resorting to a blunt, expensive policy proposal that poses long-term negative effects.

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