Should College Be Free?
Your task is to write a response to one of the opinion pieces we read for this section of the course. Your response should offer a different viewpoint; that doesn’t necessarily mean “contradictory” or “opposite” viewpoint, though it might. Issues rarely have just two sides; instead, they can be very complex, and people can have a number of differing positions on issues. So, it’s okay if you’re not directly arguing “against” the original piece of writing. With all of this in mind, use the questions from the overview to help generate ideas and start building details. It might help to think that this rhetorical situation has similarities to writing a letter.
Last year, New York became the first state to offer all but its wealthiest residents tuition-
free access to its public community colleges and four-year institutions. Though this
Excelsior Scholarship didnt make college completely free, it highlights the power of the
pro-college movement in the United States.
Recent decades have brought agreement that higher education is, if not a cure, then at
least a protection against underemployment and the inequality it engenders. In 2012,
President Barack Obama called a college degree an economic imperative that every
family in America has to be able to afford.
Americans strove to rise to that challenge: A third of them ages 25 to 29 now hold at least
a bachelors degree, and many paid heavily for the privilege. By last summer, Americans
owed more than $1.3 trillion in student loans, more than two and a half times what they
owed a decade earlier.
Young people and their families go into debt because they believe that college will help
them in the job market. And on average it does. But this raises a question: Does higher
education itself offer that benefit, or are the people who earn bachelor's degrees already
positioned to get higher-paying jobs?
If future income was determined mainly by how much education people received, then
you would assume that some higher education would be better than none. But this is often
not the case.
People who have dropped out of college — about 40 percent of all who attend — earn only
a bit more than do people with only a high school education: $38,376 a year versus
$35,256. For many, that advantage is barely enough to cover their student loan debt.
The value of a college degree also varies depending on the institution bestowing it. The
tiny minority of students who attend elite colleges do far better on average than those
who attend non selective ones. Disturbingly, black and Hispanic students are significantly
less likely than are white and Asian students to attend elite colleges, even when family
income is controlled for. That is, students from wealthy black and Hispanic families have
a lower chance of attending an elite college than do students from middle-class white
It's a cruel irony that a college degree is worth less to people who most need a boost:
those born poor. This revelation was made by the economists Tim Bartik and Brad
Hershbein. Using a body of data, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which includes
50 years of interviews with 18,000 Americans, they were able to follow the lives of
children born into poor, middle-class and wealthy families.
They found that for Americans born into middle-class families, a college degree does
appear to be a wise investment. Those in this group who received one earned 162 percent
more over their careers than those who didnt.
But for those born into poverty, the results were far less impressive. College graduates
born poor earned on average only slightly more than did high school graduates born
middle class. And over time, even this small ebbed away, at least for men:
By middle age, male college graduates raised in poverty were earning less than non
degree holders born into the middle class. The scholars conclude,Individuals from poorer backgrounds may be encountering a glass ceiling that even a bachelors degree
does not break.
The authors dont speculate as to why this is the case, but it seems that students from poor
backgrounds have less access to very high-income jobs in technology, finance and other
fields. Class and race surely play a role.
We appear to be approaching a time when, even for middle-class students, the economic
benefit of a college degree will begin to dim. Since 2000, the growth in the wage gap
between high school and college graduates has slowed to a halt; 25 percent of college
graduates now earn no more than does the average high school graduate.
Part of the reason is oversupply. Technology increased the demand for educated workers,
but that demand has been consistently outpaced by the number of people — urged on by
everyone from teachers to presidents — prepared to meet it.
No other nation punishes the ''uneducated'' as harshly as the United States. Nearly 30
percent of Americans without a high school diploma live in poverty, compared to 5
percent with a college degree, and we infer that this comes from a lack of education. But
in 28 other wealthy developed countries, a lack of a high school diploma increases the
probability of poverty by less than 5 percent. In these nations, a dearth of education does
not predestine citizens for poverty.
It shouldn't here, either: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 20
percent of American jobs actually require a bachelor's degree. By 2026, the bureau
estimates that this proportion will rise, but only to 25 percent.
Why do employers demand a degree for jobs that don't require them? Because they can..
What all this suggests is that the college-degree premium may really be a no-college-
degree penalty. It's not necessarily college that gives people the leverage to build a better
working life, it's that not having a degree decreases whatever leverage they might
This distinction is more than semantic. It is key to understanding the growing chasm
between educational attainment and life prospects. For most of us, it's not our education
that determines our employment trajectory but rather where that education positions us in
relation to others.
None of this is to suggest that higher education is not desirable: I've encouraged my own
children to take that path. But while we celebrate the most recent crop of college
graduates, we should also acknowledge the many more Americans who will never don a
cap and gown. They, too, deserve the chance to prove themselves worthy of good work,
and a good life.