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Why College Should Not Be Free

Jim Correll, director Fab Lab ICC at Independence Community College, Independence Kansas 

I get a little nervous when I hear politicians, policy makers and educators talking about making college free for everyone.  Free college is a bad idea and here are some reasons why.  By the way, these principles apply to many parents who are killing themselves trying to provide a totally free ride so Junior can attend college with no “skin in the game” of his or her own.   

People Don't Value Free 

People don’t value things they receive for free.  Many times it’s because the free things are really of little value.  This gives people the impression that free things don’t have much value so that even things of value are not appreciated.  Giving things away does little to build the recipients' ability to be self-reliant, building their self-efficacy, a form of self-confidence that leads to better life-long decisions.  “Habitat for Humanity” is a program that helps people have affordable housing, not free.  The reason the program is successful is that everyone has to contribute to the house being built for them in some way.  This “sweat equity” is what makes people value the program and the homes they receive from the volunteers who help make them possible.  A college education should be affordable, but not free. 

Not Everyone Needs College 

Another reason free college is a bad idea is that not everyone needs college.  Don’t misunderstand, everyone needs to be educated, and everyone needs to be committed to life-long learning, but there are lots of ways to become educated besides going to college.  After decades of a societal message that everyone should go to college, many of us now realize this is not the case.  There are plenty of examples of people that have made huge differences in the lives of others, indeed, the world without a formal college education. 

Higher Education Needs Change 

Finally, with more than fifty-percent of college graduates unemployed or under employed, we need to re-engineer higher education before we make it free and infuse even more unemployable graduates into the market place. The college degree needs to include training and knowledge about how to be agile and adaptive to a changing world.   As the world changes and career paths come and go, we need our educated people to be able to change course and thrive rather than hit the unemployment line while waiting for the next job in a career that is no longer of value to the market place.  

College Should Be Attainable, But Not Free 

Scholarships and financial aid should be available for those willing to work in exchange.  There’s nothing wrong with the idea of students working their way through college.  Students having their own “skin in the game” will take their education more seriously and will tend to make sure how and what they learn will serve them well in a future world of continual change and disruption. 

Jim Correll is the director of Fab Lab ICC at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship on the campus of Independence Community College. He can be reached at (620) 252-5349, by email at or Twitter @jimcorrellks.  

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