Some thoughts on free college protests

The Million Student March challenged students to come together last week and protest the high cost of college, as well as demand that college become more free to more people.

I strongly favor making college more affordable to more people. But I strongly oppose making college entirely free—a very different prospect form making it more affordable.

Making college affordable involves existing financial aid programs, initiatives that decrease costs or improve efficiency, and wise financial decisions. But making college free essentially amounts to making someone else pay for it.

A photo recently went somewhat viral with a response to the protests for free college.


While I can’t verify the accuracy of this individual’s story, I can vouch for the principle behind it.

Image File
Source: National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), 2013, National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, 2011-12 (NPSAS:12), Analysis by the Council of Independent Colleges.

I had $0 saved up for college when I returned from a church mission late in 2003. In fact, I had only a few dollars to my name. My mom loaned/gave me $100 that she had earned¬†by selling homemade sourdough bread so I would have the down payment to register for classes at Surry Community College, having no idea how I’d pay the tuition. (I’d never heard of FAFSA for some reason.) When I graduated a couple of years later, I had amassed only a few thousand dollars in debt, which I paid off within a few years.

How did I do it? Here are a few factors that played a role:

  • I started at a community college.
  • I almost always had a part-time job when I was in school.
  • I had full-time jobs most summers between college years.
  • I lived really inexpensively. I rarely ate out. I ate lots of ramen.
  • After I finished school, I usually paid more than was due each month on my student loans; Finally, I decided to just use some savings to pay off the rest just before I got married.

Of course, financial aid and scholarships helped a lot. Because of that, I strongly support Pell grants and scholarship programs. But if I had not received those scholarships, I simply would have selected a less expensive school.

You see, no one gets into massive¬†debt for a bachelor’s degree by accident. That requires a choice, or a series of choices, ranging from which school to go to to whether or not to get a job or which study abroad program(s) to participate in.

But it is even more true that most people do not get into massive debt, period. Bachelors degree recipients from private colleges have an average debt load of less than $20,000. And a quarter of them have no debt at all. That is private college, the oh-so-expensive institution.

I’ve seen how a college education changed my life and helped me build a good future for myself and my family. And, hopefully, a good future for others, too. I wholeheartedly support finding ways to make college more affordable. But students and colleges have an important role to play in that process. They have to make choices that result in college costing less.

Demanding that other people fork over the money for it is not the answer. If other people pay for it, students have no incentive to make wise choices regarding where they go to school, what they study, and what expenses (tuition increases, activity fees, etc.) to tolerate from the school. And therefore schools would have no incentive to restrain costs. And college would cost more.