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Free College - Will it do the trick?

Free College Tuition May Not Be Good Enough

When Bernie Sanders dropped from the 2016 presidential race, much of the chatter over free college disappeared, but since Americans are falling further behind on their student loan debt, there’s no doubt the issue will surge into the spotlight again soon.

In the following paragraphs we take a shallow dive into the debate and come out wondering whether free college – if enacted – would be enough to truly help all Americans.

Should College Be Free?

As with any hotly contested policy, there are two passionate sides to the free education debate.

The argument for free college

Proponents of free college believe that the costs are outweighed by the benefits because:

  • Education is a right
  • Student debt is crippling young people
  • An education population benefits America socially, economically, scientifically, and militarily

They claim free college benefits students, would likely benefit the nation, and jives with our belief that education is good.

The argument against free college

The opponents of free college speak less loftily, but argue that free tuition would be harmful because:

In other words, it’s all about dollars and cents, baby. The price is logical and should be paid.

Determining the Winner

So, who is right?

Truly, we can’t know. The scale is too big and the variables too many. We may just have to wait and see.

In the meantime, we can make case studies of those who have tried it. For this piece, we looked all over the world, but found the most interesting examples right here in the U.S., thanks to the generosity of private benefactors.

Eugene Lang Helps in Harlem

In 1981, Eugene Lang promised the grade school students of P.S. 121 a complete college scholarship. All they had to do was finish high school.

A Big Change

Spoiler alert: Lang’s program was a big success.

In a district where half of the students drop out and one college attendee per class was standard, Lang saw 90% of his kids graduate. Many went on to college.

Even without more details, it’s clear that the money motivated students to graduate and get into college classrooms.


More Than Just Money

Well, according to the people who witnessed the success firsthand, money wasn’t the main motivator. That’s because the real problem was cultural.

“The attitude that ‘school is not cool’ is the biggest obstacle,” said Johnny Rivera, who Lang appointed to run his program. “Break that with a little outside help, and East Harlem students can and do go anywhere.”

Rivera’s involvement was critical to the program’s success.

“As the program coordinator, [Rivera] played nagging parent, big brother and best friend, watching report cards, arranging for tutors, setting up rap sessions and taking students to college fairs.”

In Harlem, attitude toward education was a spinning wheel. Poverty and low education bred more of the same. Lang’s program helped knock the wheel off-course a bit.

“You really have to start molding a kid’s mind early,” one of Lang’s students remarked. “So that they say, ‘What kind of question is that, if I’m going to college or not? Of course I am.'”

[For what it’s worth, we second the notion that students who believe they will perform well often do.]

Harris Rosen Transforms Tangelo Park

Eugene Lang’s program many, including Florida millionaire Harris Rosen. Unlike Lang, who worked in the inner city, Rosen’s efforts were focused on Tangelo Park, a suburb with about 3,000 residents.

Tangelo Park, Before and After Free College

When Rosen committed to improving Tangelo Park, life there was plagued by drugs, crime, low property values, and a 50% high school dropout rate.

Managed by volunteers, Rosen’s program funds free day care and pre-K programs. He offers no money directly to the schools, but stays involved in the lives of the students. The money only comes back into play after senior year, when graduates receive scholarships.

In 20 years, Rosen has contributed over $11 million to the kids of Tangelo Park, and everyone has seen the benefits. Crime and drug use are down. Property value and graduation rates are up.

Instilling Hope

However, just as in Harlem, it’s the non-financial support that locals cite as the source of their success. Transforming the minds and attitudes of the young people was key, and it wasn’t always easy.

“It’s half the battle – to visualize they can go to college,” said Sam Butler, one of Tangelo Park’s longtime residents.

Winning that battle has huge repercussions. It only takes a little bit of hope to create an entirely different outlook.

“You see a huge difference between kids who did the program and those who come from elsewhere,” said Tangelo Park Elementary principal Diondra Newton.

Bernice King, director of the King Center in Atlanta, puts it like this: “This program is drastically different from others because it wraps both arms around the community and says we are here to serve you and help you become the best person that you can be.”

Asking the Right Questions

As the debate over free tuition rages on, these American success stories may present new questions that need our attention.

Is private funding of tuition a better solution than public funding? Will free tuition lose its motivational power when all tuition is free? And perhaps most importantly of all, does throwing money at their problems ignore the emotional needs of our community’s children?


What do you think? Leave a comment on our Facebook page explaining why you think free college is a good or bad idea!