Dear College Student Who Is Against Free Tuition


January 6, 2016 by Devin

So, I ran across this article in my newsfeed recently, and rather than comment on it, I decided to spare my Facebook friends and just write a blog post about it. So there we go.

In case you do not want to read the article, it concerns paying for education. It is about why one student worked hard, saved her money, and chose a modest university, which is why she is going to graduate without any debt.

And to that I say, good for her. Managing your money smartly is a great skill and I am happy that you are able to have the resources and capabilities to do that. College for anyone is tough, so the fact that you are able to graduate on your own two feet is impressive.

But one of the greatest mistakes we can make as humans is to assume that the experiences we face are similar to the experiences everyone faces. I actually have this problem a lot when making lesson plans for my students. Because I did really well in school and got many things on the first time around without any need for supports, I assume that my students will too so I do not plan for those supports.[1]

I think that is what is going on here. This student, who, again, has performed admirably and should be proud of her accomplishments, is assuming that everyone faces the same challenges as she does and their failures to meet those challenges somehow makes it okay for them not to afford college.[3]

If we look at the challenges she faced and where she succeeded at, I think we can see how there might be some differences between her and other students. She notes:

It is stressful to know that if I fail a test and don’t meet my GPA requirements, that I will ultimately lose my scholarships. However, that stress motivates me to work hard. I’m constantly studying so that I can achieve my career goals. I’m working hard for what I want. I want to succeed.

That is fine and dandy (and again, good job!), but that is also assuming she has those scholarships in the first place, which is assuming that she had good grades in school, which is assuming she had the resources available to get those grades.

I would love to say that we live in a world where grades are based on students’ hard work and not their socio-economic status, their home life, their home language, or even their learning style, but as any metro school system teacher will tell you, that is not what happens. Many educational policies have even specifically worked against these issues. I feel like it is not that much of a leap to say that students having consistent access to nutritious food at home would improve their grades. That is not the case for many students, and their grades do suffer.


She says, “How can you be expected to work hard in your career if you can’t work hard for everything leading up to that career?” That is, of course, assuming that people who would benefit from having free college cannot work hard, but again, that is based on her own challenges.

For instance, many high school students have to get a job which lowers the amount of time they spend on studying and homework. Many students choose to have a job so they can have some extra spending money, but many have to have a job to help pay the bills. That missing time makes a difference, not only on their grades but also on their opportunities to seek out scholarships.

I am willing to bet that she lived in a culture of education as well. By that I mean, her friends did homework, studied for tests, and collaborated on projects. Many people grow up in environments where that is not the case, and that makes it harder for them to.

You can say, “Oh, well they should not have listened to their friends and paid attention to their studies instead of hanging out with them,” which is a fair point on the individual level, but at the same time, you are leveling another challenge at them that you probably did not have to face. Giving up a social life so that you can maybe spend enough time to focus on schoolwork so you can maybe get a scholarship is a sacrifice I certainly never had to make. My friends were geeks, and we all did homework and occasionally studied for tests, so we would work on stuff together and challenge each other academically. I am more successful in my academic life because of my social circles.

The sad truth of this reality, too, is that even if these students get help, even if they are offered more opportunities, even if they work hard, they often cannot compete with students who have easier challenges than they do. Dr. Barbara Stengel, professor of education at Vanderbilt University, likened this to a competition to race an ever-increasing ladder. Students who gain access to educational resources in lower income areas often cannot compete with students who gain access to educational resources in higher income areas, and when education is just that–a competition–only the ones with the most opportunities and resources “win.”

A college degree is earned, not handed to you.

I find that statement a bit odd. Has anyone ever graduated college without earning that degree?[4] The whole point of the degree is to say that you earned it. You cannot buy a degree. The point of the degree is that if you hold it, you have earned it. No one is arguing that we should hand out degrees like candy.

Furthermore, who benefits from free college? I think we should really think about it. If we all had access to a quality education, who would suffer?

College is a privilege. College is a transition and preparation for a career and life itself.

Here is the thing about quality education: we all need everyone to have it.[5] It is practically a requirement for most jobs. I can honestly say that I want more people to have a college education for selfish reasons. A more educated workforce leads to a better economy which leads to a better America for everyone, myself, and herself, included.

Am I saying that college should be free? Honestly, no. I would like to, but I do not feel confident enough in my grasp of the modern political climate and the education system to say for sure whether America should adopt that approach.

But I am willing to say that we should be a lot better than we are, and I am also willing to say that one person’s opinion and one person’s challenges should never speak for the whole.[6] This author worked hard and that paid off for her, which is great, but that does not happen for everyone, and we need all these voices in the conversation in order for it to be a productive conversation.

The author ends with a quote from Obama, talking about how the opportunities people have access to, but she leaves off part of it. The quote, in its context, is below. The words she included are italicized.

America, I believe we can build on the progress we’ve made, and continue to fight for new jobs, and new opportunity, and new security for the middle class.  I believe we can keep the promise of our founding — the idea that if you’re willing to work hard, it doesn’t matter who you are, or where you come from, or what you look like, or where you love — it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or Native American, or young or old, or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight — you can make it here in America if you’re willing to try.

She left off the whole beginning part, opting to just include the last part, meaning she left out the part where Obama clarified that this was not the case. It does matter whether or not you are “black or white, or Hispanic or Asian, or Native American, or young or old, or rich or poor, abled, disabled, gay or straight.” Obama made this the promise of tomorrow, which means they are the problems of today, and we have to acknowledge them if we are going to solve them.

Which may mean acknowledging that we face challenges others do not, and that does not make them less deserving.

Further reading from people way more qualified to talk about this than me:

What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?

Education is Not the Great Equalizer for Black Americans

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[1] If it sounds like I am bragging, I am not. I am really saying that I am kind of a crappy student teacher.[2]
[2] But I am getting better! Hence the “student” in “student teacher.”
[3] I feel like that is making her words sound nasty, but I feel like that is accurate to what she was saying. If she wants to respond, I would be more than happy to continue this discussion with her.
[4] For profit schools notwithstanding
[5] Does that mean everyone needs to go to college? No, but that should be a choice, not a result.
[6] That is the essential problem with white privilege, by the way.

2 thoughts on “Dear College Student Who Is Against Free Tuition

  1. swanpride says:

    In Germany, education is somewhat free…meaning, books are reasonably priced (this is evened out by making popular books which a lot of people want to read a little bit more expensive for everyone, so that the publisher can take the extra money and lower the prices on books only a few need to read), library fees are reasonable and free if you are studying at a university and visiting an university in itself, well, it depends on the federal state, but usually it is a small fee when you start, and a larger fee if you need too long to finish your studies. Granted, housing aso costs extra, which is why a lot of people are either studying close to home or work on the side in order to be able to finance housing.
    Even in a system like that, the number of graduates from “socially weak” families is very low…it was 3% a few years ago. That is not as bad as it sounds, though, because there are other ways into a respectable job, like being learned on by a company directly. But it shows, how hard it is for children of a lower social class to struggle up the career ladder.
    But what the system does ensure is that school marks are not the deciding factor. Which is a good thing. Because social class aside, school marks are a bad indicator of ones true abilities. It is often the most intelligent who struggle and sometimes the live has to teach what the school can’t.

    Can you imagine that I struggled with English so badly in school that it was nearly a reason to hold me back a year for more or less the whole time I was there? But I somehow learned as an adult, through experience.

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Paul Johnson's comedy blog: I didn't get into comedy to be rich or famous. All I've ever wanted was to be somebody rich and famous.

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