Why Free College Won’t Fix Higher Education’s Deeper Problem

The idea of free college is controversial. 

A certain political movement on the Left has thrown their support in for free college. Others view plans for free college for everyone as socialism.

What’s not controversial is that there are some big problems with the modern higher education system. With 44 million Americans in student debt, the thing that was supposed to give young people a boost as they launch is actually a chain holding them down.

Since the election of President Biden there’s been a lot of talk about student loan forgiveness. But one private college is actually going a step further: they’re offering free college for a semester in the hopes of attracting students to their small school.

Arkansas Baptist is a private, historically black college located in Little Rock. And yes, for one semester, it will be completely free to attend.

This brings up an interesting question.

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What’s the Value of an Education?

There are a lot of ways we could look at Arkansas Baptist’s decision to offer free college for a semester. It might be a great marketing strategy. It might also be a really bad idea. If people get used to free room, board, and tuition for a semester, do we expect that they’ll pay normal prices for the next semester?

According to Inside Higher Ed, over half the funding that makes this free college plan possible comes from federal coronavirus aid packages. The rest comes from the state and from student aid grants. Is this funding method sustainable? If we assume that coronavirus recovery isn’t a permanent funding solution, what will Arkansas Baptist do when that money is no longer available? Will they go back to charging thousands in tuition?

In some ways, if rationales can be made for funding this plan, the question stands: why wasn’t this done earlier? And why aren’t other schools doing it?

Questions are begged when a private college suddenly says, “Hey, we know we usually charge thousands of dollars to attend but why don’t you just come for free for a semester?” 

To use an analogy from several weeks ago, imagine you walk onto a car lot filled with sports cars. The salesperson is out in the lot removing the pricing signs from the car windows. He says the cars are now free. How would you perceive the value of the car?

The Deeper Problem

Whether you think free college is the best idea since sliced bread, socialism, a marketing gimmick, or something in between, it’s not going to fix what’s most deeply broken about the American higher education system.

The value ≠ the cost.

The problem isn’t that college tuition is unaffordable. It’s that people still go into debt to pay these unaffordable prices for something that isn’t actually worth the price.

Many people graduate with college degrees. Even most entry-level white-collar jobs require a degree. As I’ve said before: college isn’t a luxury item anymore. But somehow, the luxury price tag still sticks around.

Traditional secular higher education has become an indoctrination industry, not a place where young people go to prepare for their calling in life.

The New Luxury Education

While everyone is graduating with a degree and heading out to find a job, project-based education programs like Unbound’s Ascend program are preparing students to launch with a head-start on their resume, core life skills, and a powerful community and professional network.

If luxury is based on scarcity, this is the new luxury education. Students emerging from the Ascend program launch with real world experience in the fields that interest them in addition to college credit. 

Is free college a good idea? In the case of Arkansas Baptist, it remains to be seen. But here’s an even better idea than free college: education and life preparation that actually works in equipping students for life in the ever-changing real world.

Ascend is the friendliest project-based education program on Earth. Enrollment ends on July 31st. Get more information today.