Should College Be Free?

Dec 13, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

Some of my best memories of life at the University of Pittsburgh occurred on the international floor of our residence hall. It was a place where you could hear three languages within ten feet, and where I first met British students who were studying in the States courtesy of their government. (Thanks John Major!)

Meanwhile, when I decided to study in England, I had to take a semester off and save up by working double shifts at Chili's. (Thanks Uncle Sam!) As someone who narrowly avoided dropping out of college because my folks couldn't afford it, meeting students who didn't have to worry about the cost of education was eye-opening.

More than a decade later -- as I dutifully write checks for student loans that are still in five-figures -- I envy my British peers, one of whom went on to get a gratis doctorate from Cambridge.


Naturally, we can debate the hidden costs of "free" education in high taxes and debt... not to mention the fact that college -- while certainly economical -- isn't guaranteed for all in England. Regardless, I still think the Brits got the basic idea right.

Education should be free.

Sure, they have to eat it on the front end so their students can study by day and haze freshmen at night, but that's still better than eating it on the back end in poverty, crime, and other side effects that can stem from limited education and, accordingly, limited opportunities.

Yes, I am aware that England is not immune to poverty and crime. However, I'm also aware that the answer to those "troubles" (as they call them) is not to deny even more students access to education.

Here in the States, we are accustomed to think of college as a privilege. Ironically, as I write this I also have a Facebook screen open where I'm trying to convince my niece she's "qualified" to earn a bachelor's degree when she graduates from high school next year.

The problem is, she doesn't think so and -- oh yea -- she has no idea how to pay for it.

I don't proclaim to know how every English student feels about college, but I do know the ones I've met never viewed it this way. So when I see news reports about 50,000 students and supporters protesting the tuition hike from £3,000 to £9,000 per year, I can see why they're angry -- especially when they're not accustomed to paying for university at all.

For us, I imagine it would be like hearing Congress was planning to charge people to vote. "Look Johnny, I know you've been exercising your Democratic freedom all these years, but it's going to cost you $1 per candidate now, OK? Whoops -- sorry, did we say $1? We meant $3."

Just to be clear... I'm not a fan of violence, tear gas, water cannons, general unruliness, or anything involving MI5. I am, however, a fan of education for all, so I hope a compromise can be found that allows as many students as possible to get back to school, and the rest of us to get back to collectively focusing on other critical matters -- like Kate Middleton's wedding dress.