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Tuesday, October 3, 2023


The cost of a free education: How Obama’s proposal could affect students

Click on each photo for a glimpse into how UH students make college a reality on their budget.

Kiara Carter wanted the full college experience. That’s why she’s been at UH since her freshman year, she said, instead of going to community college. The creative writing junior made it work, taking out federal and private loans, knowing that it’ll be on her to pay up after graduation.

“I didn’t want to split up my time between community college and a university,” Carter said. “I’ve had to take out loans each and every semester, and it’s been a lot of stress. Our family is middle-class, so we’re kind of stuck in the middle. (The loans) are racking up more than I thought. And I don’t know how I’m going to pay for them, but it’s going to be fine.”

Carter is far from alone. Most of UH’s nontraditional students have used nontraditional means to pay for college. Some split the cost between loans and help from their parents. Others work countless hours in order to graduate debt-free. So when President Obama said “free” and “college” in the same sentence during his State of the Union address on Jan. 20, ears perked.

The points Obama brought up were abstract – he rallied behind an idea most of his party’s members (and UH’s very own President and Chancellor Renu Khator) have historically rallied behind, like the need to provide institutional access to all.

“Some (college students) are young and starting out. Some are older and looking for a better job,” Obama said.  “Some are veterans and single parents trying to transition back into the job market. Whoever you are, this plan is your chance to graduate ready for the new economy, without a load of debt.”

The proposal, which would guarantee free tuition for two years of community college, would have serious impacts on higher education. Obama said his ultimate goal is to make college as “free and universal in America as high school is today,” citing Tennessee and Chicago as examples that prove free college is something to be seriously considered.

But neither program has taken effect, so completion numbers aren’t yet available. No one can say whether the program “works” yet. Economics professor Aimee Chin said although Obama has been shy on proposal’s details, he’s communicating how important it is that more young people attend college.

Screen Shot 2015-01-29 at 9.03.24 AM

Click to expand the image. | Infographic by Josue Diaz


“It’s not like this has never been done before. Many states have merit scholarships that say that students can attend a state college for free, as long as you attended high school in our state and maintain a certain GPA,” Chin said. “So it’s not unprecedented… But there’s more complexity to implementing this — it might not be entirely free. That’s a major risk you’re taking by enrolling. What if you enroll and you don’t meet the grade requirement? Are you unenrolled? That’s a tricky risk to take by assuming that expenditure.”

In his State of the Union Address, Obama didn’t give specifics on his national free tuition initiative and didn’t mention any mentorship or oversight accompanying the program. He only said that the U.S. needs it in order to be nationally competitive. By 2020, Obama said, two of three jobs will require “some form of higher education.”

Nontraditional students like many at UH already face unique challenges. Aside from getting accepted, there’s the question of how to pay for transportation, books, fees and maintain the GPA necessary to continue receiving aid. TIME reported that the free tuition initiatives of Chicago and Tennessee also included strict monitoring of “student progress, careful alignment of courses to transfer and job requirements… and help for students to make better choices about what to study.”

Economist Gary Becker published a study in 1975 that aimed to quantify the value of high school and college educations. Given that his study is 40 years old, relevant information that can be gleaned from it is limited. But Becker made an observation that rings true in 2015, especially for UH students.

“(A student’s) earnings are usually less than if he were not in school since he cannot work as much or as regularly,” the study reads. “Tuition, fees, books, supplies and unusual transportation and lodging expenses are other more direct costs.”

“I’ve had to take out loans each and every semester, and it’s been a lot of stress… They’re racking up more than I thought. And I don’t know how I’m going to pay for them, but it’s going to be fine.” -Kiara Carter, creative writing junior

In other words, giving somebody a cell phone and saying that they have a free cell phone is true, but only to an extent. They’ll have to find the means to buy a charger, a case and to pay the monthly bill. Time that they would otherwise devote to making money or generating a dispensable income, Becker would argue, has now been devoted to earning money to pay for the cell phone. The same could be said about paying for tuition and nothing else.

“’Free for those willing to work’ is a salesman’s slogan,” wrote Al Jazeera America’s Malcolm Harris. “The premise of capitalism is that everything is free if you’re willing to work for it; work is money too. Truly free college would compensate students for their indirect as well as direct costs.”

In Texas, the majority of community college funding comes from property tax. Chin said to consider the “redistributive” consequences that could follow a nation-wide policy change in higher education – one that would affect precisely the kind of student UH caters to.

“It’s not just about increasing community college enrollment,” Chin said. “There will be shifts in enrollment in other places. There will have to be a way to fund community colleges dealing with the increased enrollment, unless people are OK with raising their taxes… It’s the classic federal-local tension.”

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