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College Should be Attainable But Not Free

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

I’ve written about this topic a couple of times before, mostly when I’ve heard a political candidate bandy about the idea of free college for everyone. Previously I’ve gotten a little nervous when I’ve heard politicians, policy makers and educators talking about making college free for everyone.  I’ve now gone from a little nervous to a lot nervous now that Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill supporting free college. Free college is a bad idea and here are some reasons why.  By the way, these principles apply not only to government programs but also 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, or build 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, affordable but 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. 

Stop Saying No College is Inferior 

Some politicians and other members of society are finally starting to realize that college is not for everyone. Their message is not right, however. If you begin to listen, you’ll hear this societal message loud and clear, “You don’t have to go to college, you can go to technical school and settle for a job working for someone else your whole life.” No doubt there are plenty of technical jobs that pay double what the new college graduate will make, but why are we telling these young people they can’t do any better than working for someone else? We have to have people willing to start new companies in the trades and technical areas and people without college will be just as apt to make a success of a new business than those with college. 

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 marketplace. 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 marketplace. 

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. 

It’s the Mindset, not the Degree, That Will Change the World 

We should be instilling a growth mindset in all youth, college or not, employee or entrepreneur. We need to instill a curiosity about the world and how to make it better. From the great book “Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley, “When you open your mind to the possibility that your capabilities are unlimited and unknown, you already have your running shoes on and are ready to race forward.” 

Jim Correll can be reached at (620) 252-5349 or by email at jcorrell@indycc.eduThe views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of Fab Lab ICC or Independence Community College. Archive columns and podcasts at 

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