Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Saturday, Feb. 24, 2024
The Observer

Rethinking free college

Should college tuition be free? For the past five years or so, Senator Bernie Sanders has been particularly vocal on this subject, going as far as to call free college a “human right.” But with the inauguration of Joe Biden, who supported a very generous free college program during his presidential campaign, what was once considered a radical pipe dream could very well become a reality.

Free college isn’t without its critics, of course. Many wonder, reasonably so, about the large cost of such a policy, while others are concerned this will only further accelerate the credentials arms race among students who are increasingly told that a university degree will not cut it. Many of us have heard this first-hand. An undergraduate education (with two majors, of course!) only keeps you with the pack. What you really need to stand out in today’s competitive job market, we are told, is a master’s degree. Free college doesn’t solve this problem but only moves the competition one rung higher. Author and economist Bryan Caplan states the problem of free college well: “Trying to spread success with education spreads education but not success.”

This is a pretty fair critique, but watch closely where it leads us. If college primarily serves as a credential on a resume, as this objection seems to assume, if we’re mainly looking for a way to sift through future job applicants, college seems like a very strange way to do it. Four years of college (and college tuition) are quite an arduous, time-intensive and costly process for something that could perhaps be achieved through a series of standardized tests. Under this view of higher education, college is, or at least should be, an intricate system of hoops students must jump through, signaling to employers a student’s dedication and ability to complete complex and sometimes boring work.

“But college is more than just evaluating if you have the right pre-existing skill set,” I can hear someone saying. “It’s not just some signal to employers or a four-year certification test. College itself should serve to prepare you for future jobs — high-paying ones at that. It should focus on helping you learn the concepts you will use in the career you pursue.” Fair enough. Yet the current university model seems like a pretty poor way to do this. Vocational school seems more fit to fulfill this role. Why should we waste time teaching students what they will never use or need to know to be successful in the workplace? Why does a future lawyer need to study calculus, and why does a future doctor or welder need to take English or history? Not only should students stick with classes in their field, but it seems if we hold a utilitarian view of college, we really should drop the humanities and most of the social sciences. You’re not going to be quizzed about Dante and Freud in a business meeting or during surgery, so why should you learn it? This model offers an interesting answer: You shouldn’t.

Red flags are probably going up in your head at this point. Something doesn’t seem right here. “College isn’t just about job training,” you might be thinking to yourself. “College is about learning about the world and being an informed person and citizen. College is about acquiring knowledge and understanding.” But knowledge about what? What subjects should we teach, and which ones get preference over the others, which is to ask which are more and most important? Going to college “to learn” is far too vague to be a guiding mission statement. There must be some underlying philosophy of education that drives the university to offer different courses and subjects. Without this, a university would lose all structure. It would look more like a library than a class, where the professor chooses what to teach the class and put on exams.

But even a library only has a selection of books, so a college built on the general “pursuit of knowledge” must be even less structured than that! If we think the real point of college is to “learn things,” we are fooling ourselves. At most it is to know certain things, and we must begin to ask ourselves what those things are and why. Even if we accept the “learning-based model” of college (which is certainly up for debate), the real purpose of college, the thing that leads us to discriminate between subjects and courses, still evades us.

So why am I saying all this, and what does it have to do with the question of free college? Quite a lot. If we’re to have any real, substantive conversation about free college, we must first understand what the purpose of college is. Most of the time we rush into this political issue assuming we all know the true purpose of college education and no discussion is needed. But what I hope this column has shown is that most of us really don’t have a good idea about what college is about at its innermost core. We may know that things like credential earning, job training and gaining knowledge are important parts of a college education, yet we also realize none of these should be considered the main objective of college.

What is the main thing, the purpose of college that takes precedence over all other factors and shapes what a meaningful college experience looks like? It cannot be multiple things at once. If we are to have a coherent view of education, there must be in both philosophy and action that is preeminent in our calculations. But we struggle to think of what that actually is. We simply haven’t put much thought into it, and it shows. We need to build solid foundations in our thinking about college, or we risk miscalculation and error and, for us, wasting our short time in college. It’s time to go back to the basics.

Andrew Sveda is a sophomore at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pa. majoring in political science.  In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano.  He can be reached at or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.