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Should Tuition Be Free in Public Colleges and Universities?

Tuition-Free Public Education vs. the Importance of Developing a Work Ethic and Grit

Last week presumptive Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, stole a play from Bernie Sanders’ playbook and proposed that public higher education be offered tuition free to all who are from families with incomes of up to $125,000. Estimates are that about 80 percent of American families would be able to avoid tuition at public colleges and universities. Clinton’s plan would start with students from families earning up to $85,000 a year and gradually lift the income threshold until it reaches $125,000, which the campaign said would happen by 2021.

Clinton’s proposal is counter-productive on so many levels that I don’t know where to start. First and most obvious, it would be up to each state to decide whether to provide tuition-free education to public colleges and universities and, if so, would it be limited to residents. As we have seen in other situations, if a state decides not to provide tuition-free education “mandated by” the federal government, then the government might choose to step in through executive action and take away federal funding from non-compliant states.

How would states make up for the lost tuition revenues if they enacted free education to public colleges and universities? Out here in California it would create havoc to enact a tuition-free education model because millions are collected each year from residents and non-residents. The chart below shows annual amounts. When we use four years as a standard for the 33 state institutions and two years for the 113 community colleges, these amounts add up quickly. Moreover, these amounts have been increasing each year for many years because of reduced state funding in the aftermath of the great recession.

California Community College (CCC)

Resident Tuition* $1,104

Non-Resident Tuition* $3,360-$9,600

California State University (CSU)

Resident Tuition* $5,472

Non-Resident Tuition* $14,400

University of California (UC)

Resident Tuition* $12,192

Non-Resident Tuition* $35,070

But the loss of millions in tuition to state governments is not the most important issue from a societal perspective. The most important concern is that a tuition-free education system robs young people of the life-altering experience of learning how to study and work at the same time in order to pay for tuition and the concomitant benefit of developing a strong work ethic.

Developing a strong work ethic is essential in today’s global economy. American graduates are competing with an increasingly better-prepared group of foreign students in areas such as technology and science. I have previously blogged about the stagnant scores on achievement tests of American students in math and science when compared to foreigners from many countries. I have observed that a strong work ethic is a contributing factor to the differential.

I have also previously blogged about the new buzzword making the rounds to explain the key ingredient in building a successful experience whether it be in education, the workplace, or in meeting life’s challenges. It is Grit. Angela Duckworth defines grit as passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality.

So, Duckworth believes that grit is the secret sauce that drives success. It is more important than both talent and intellect. Grit when combined with effort (work ethic) builds the strength of character to succeed in school and the workplace. People with grit get off the floor when they are knocked down, dust themselves off, and try harder the next time. It is an iterative process and can’t really play out to its fullest without the challenges in life that develop grit including working, if necessary, to pay for college costs. In the end, the lessons learned will far outweigh the extra effort required to gain a college education.

Ethically speaking, as the saying goes, there is no free lunch. Someone has to bear the cost and risk. It may even be those who are the recipients of a free college education because taxes may have to be raised to make up for the lost tuition revenues in state coffers.

Is it ethically appropriate for citizens with no kids to be taxed at a higher rate or pay more in taxes to help educate youngsters of other citizens? One could make the argument that it builds a stronger society and better develops the social responsibility instincts of the beneficiaries of free tuition because many could now get a college education when they might not have been able to before. All this is true but the issue being ignored is moral hazard.

Moral hazard is a situation in which one party gets involved in a risky event (i.e., goes to college even though no desire exists to do so) knowing that it is protected against the risk and the other party will incur the cost. It arises when both parties have incomplete information about each other, especially the recipient's work ethic, grit, and good old fashioned stick-to-itiveness.

So, what's the answer to rising tuition? For starters, the cost of college debt is too high. Interest rates on existing debt should be restructured and reduced for new debt. The Federal Stafford Loan has a fixed interest rate of 6.8%, more than twice the rate on many other forms of debt. The Federal PLUS loan has a rate of 7.9%. Private loan rates are even higher. These rates should be cut by at least 50%.

But, let's not deprive college students of the benefits of burning the candle at both ends and learning how to develop the determination to see a project through to its natural conclusion even in the face of extreme sacrifice. Today, most businesses and professions expect this quality of grit informed by a strong work ethic.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on July 12, 2016. Dr. Mintz is Professor Emeritus from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at:

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