Free college for all – A good idea or not?

While reading this article “Democratic Candidates Diverge on ‘Free College for All it made me think about this issue in detail. I personally belong to a relatively small group of Australians who started university between 1974 and 1982 and benefitted from an Australian government policy of free tertiary education for all. This program was soon after dropped as it had become too expensive and was replaced with a student loan scheme.

On the plus side, I would not have gone to university without this program. On the negative side, I did see massive amounts of waste as a result. The fact that students did not have to pay to study saw many students enrol and then drop out, change degrees halfway through, enrol in additional subjects they did not intend on finishing etc. The problem being if something is provided for FREE then the value of it is reduced and wasted, and people do not have to carefully consider their choices. 

The fundamental question of a ‘user pays’ system of education is who is the biggest beneficiary of that education. If one believes society is the main beneficiary of having our most talented people obtain degrees then it makes sense that society pays the bulk of the cost. If the individual is the biggest beneficiary then the individual should bear most of the cost.

A system that requires the individual to pay is always going to strongly favour the more affluent. This system reinforces that those born into the more wealthy sections of society become the next professional class. Academically gifted people from lower income families never get a chance to gain the academic qualifications that could change their life.

There are bigger questions associated with free education for all — who is going to pay? How many graduates does a country actually need? Education is expensive and if the individual is not paying then the tax payer is paying. Is sending a large number of young people to university really a good idea? For example, in South Korea 68% of people aged between 25-34 have a degree, however 68% of jobs do not require a degree holder. If the tax payer is paying for this then this is a great waste of money that could have better been spent on other things like improving health care or providing child care for low income families etc. This does not even touch on the issue of the amount of new university places that would have to be made available.

My own view would be for the government to expand a scholarship scheme to pay for those academically merited students who are from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. I think ‘free college for all’ would be a significant waste of money and not achieve a desirable outcome for any country.

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