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Why Tuition-Free College Might Not Be That Far Off

by on August 13, 2019 5:00 AM

Free college tuition for everyone. Now that’s a topic that might garner some interest here in Happy Valley, home as we are to the largest university in the state by enrollment, and where our address says it all: State College, PA. 

It’s also a topic of great interest to many Americans. The ones who have yet to attend, and especially the estimated 43 million adult Americans — about one out of every six over the age of 18 in this country — who have federal student loan debt. The total of that debt is now $1.5 trillion. Quick division shows that the average debtor is carrying almost $35,000 of federal debt. This doesn’t count the additional estimated $119 billion in outstanding student loans from private sources.

At least two of the top-polling candidates for the Democratic nomination in next year’s presidential election are calling for free public college (a wonderful option for those who have yet to attend) and also cancellation of some or all of outstanding student debt (a wonderful option for those aforementioned 43 million Americans).

But what about those who saved for college, or worked while attending, or paid off loans in a timely manner? What’s a fiscally responsible person to do about this seeming gift to those who are in debt?

On a personal level, my parents made sacrifices to pay for my first two years of college, and then I took out a $5,000 PHEAA loan to pay for my next two years, which I later paid it back in full. Shouldn’t I expect today’s students to make similar sacrifices? Won’t those sacrifices and loans and possible defaults make them appreciate the value of their education and give them an outstanding lesson in personal finance at the same time? It did for me. 

The real question is, who is willing to commit your and my federal tax money to this issue?

Before answering that question we should note that there are states where free college tuition is a reality. In California, residents have been able to attend two-year colleges for free for decades. As of earlier this year there are 23 states with pending legislation that would cover tuition at public colleges for some or all students. So the “Free College Tuition” movement is already well underway at the state level. 

In addition we should also note that employers are beginning to take this issue into their own hands. A year ago The Walt Disney Company launched their Disney Aspire program, whereby any US-based regular full-time and part-time hourly employee is eligible to participate in the program after 90 days of employment with Disney. The program pays 100% of tuition up front at schools that are part of the Disney Aspire network. One of the most recognizable colleges in the network is the University of Central Florida (UCF).

So on one hand, it appears the question at the federal level is really whether they’ll get any legislation passed before the states and private sector take care of the issue completely. But there is another side to this question of whether the federal government should pursue free college tuition at all public universities: workplace discrimination.

Federal laws prohibit workplace discrimination and are enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). In the United States it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against a job applicant for a number of reasons including race, religion, sex, age, national origin or disability. The EEOC advises employers that when looking at job applications and resumes the information obtained from them should be limited to that which is essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job.

One piece of information that historically has been considered essential in that determination is education. Virtually every job application asks for your educational background – grade school, high school, and college. I have been looking at resumes for almost four decades and, again, virtually every one lists what schools that person has attended.

But should they?

Grade school, middle school and high school are all available to anyone. They are open to the public at no cost and paid for by taxpayer dollars. Everyone has the opportunity to attend and graduate if they so choose. It makes sense for that type of education to be “fair game” on job applications.

A college education, however, is not available to everyone. In many cases it is only available to those with the means to afford it. Consequently there could be discrimination associated with those who get to go to college versus those who don’t. Should that type of information request be allowed for pre-employment screening for jobs that cannot demonstrate a requirement for the education? I think not. How many jobs that list “Bachelor’s Degree required” could prove it if they had to?

Which leaves us with two choices: either restrict pre-employment questions and requests for college educations to those jobs which can demonstrate the information is essential for determining if a person is qualified for the job, or open public universities to everyone free-of-charge from tuition. The first is highly unlikely, but the second, as we can see from various state and private-sector initiatives, could become a reality. And to help it along all it takes is the federal government to either require states to do it, or foot the bill themselves.

Maybe free college tuition for everyone isn’t that far off.


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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