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All-School Debate: Free College Tuition

April 12, 2019

During assembly on Friday, April 12, the finals of the all-school debate were held on stage. Seniors Turner Carlson and Avi Dundoo faced off with juniors Max Kellaher and Hugh McKelvy in a debate over whether the U.S. Federal government should provide free tuition at public universities for all academically qualified for all in-state students. The winning team will be selected by debate class students and announced in assembly on Monday.
 
Before the debate began, moderators Elle Sullivan '19 and Ben Cummings '19 congratulated Joe Baur and Mateo Sanchez, who won the 7th- and 8th-grade division, and Thomas Dobbs and Nathaniel Doty, who won the 9th- and 10th-grade division.
 
Highlights of the finals follow:
 
Resolved: The U.S. Federal government should provide free tuition at public universities for all academically qualified, in-state students.
 
Timekeeper: Alison Dahl.
 
Speaking in the affirmative, Turner Carlson and Avi Dundoo.
 
Speaking in the negative, Max Kellaher and Hugh McKelvy.
 
Four-minute opening statements, three minutes for cross-examination, and four minutes for rebuttals and summaries. Speakers will monitor the timekeeper, who will raise her right hand to indicate when 30 seconds are remaining, and lower her hand when time has expired.
 
Avi Dundoo led off, describing how the Land Grant College Act, signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, provided the resources for states to establish public universities — "People's Colleges." Most of these institutions, established to make higher education accessible to lower-income individuals, still exist. Yet "more than 150 years later, it's unfortunate to say that public colleges are not living up to their original name, as their unaffordable tuition has created a crisis for the American people," Dundoo argued. He further stated that there are many reasons why the government should offer free public college to in-state students. Most significantly, it will tackle the current student loan debt crisis. As the Washington Post noted, more than 44.5 million Americans owe the federal government more than $1.56 trillion in student loan debt — which means 25 percent of the adult population is stuck in the second-highest debt category. Student loan debt also burdens people after graduation, making it harder for recent grads participate more fully in the general economy. Dundoo acknowledged the cost of providing free tuition at state colleges: the House Budget Committee estimates it would cost $70 billion annually. However, he argued that creating an educated populace was a good investment for that money since by 2020, 65 percent of all American jobs will require education beyond a high school diploma, yet the U.S. Census estimates that one out in three American adults currently possesses a bachelor's degree. Since our job market will need skilled workers who are college graduates, offering free college tuition will help more people to obtain advanced degrees and fill that gap. Dundoo also gave the example of the state of Georgia, which has implemented a free college system for all qualified, in-state students. The program is funded by lottery revenue, and so did not result in higher taxes for residents. The United States Federal government, he stated, could adopt this policy, as it lays out a clear and concise plan on how free college tuition would be offered to qualified students. He also stated that the benefits of free college tuition are immeasurable with regard to bridging the wealth and race divide. "Higher education plays a major role in maintaining wealth," he said. "Throughout history, many minorities and lower-income communities have been stuck in a continual cycle of disenfranchisement. Free public college would provide the opportunity for a brighter future, access to the middle class and overall financial stability." Even when lower-income individuals do finish college, the resulting debt makes it very difficult if not impossible to start a business, invest, or purchase a home. "This proposal is about equity — it's about ensuring that all people are provided with the same opportunities to fulfill the American dream," Dundoo concluded. "The federal government should provide free college education for all qualified students, because of its ability to put an end to the crippling student loan crisis, and its capacity to give everyone an opportunity to succeed, regardless of race or zip code."
 
Kellaher countered for the negative, starting with the example of Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign promises on free college tuition, which sparked national debate and led to states offering free tuition for two-year, in-state community colleges. New York has recently become the first state to provide its residents with access to free tuition to four-year colleges. "A federal government subsidization of college tuition has been heavily idealized by our society, and seems noble at first glance," he said. "Yet in reality, free college tuition is not this utopian vision some may play it out in their heads to be. He posited that the cost be prohibitive — and would not be a good investment, as the policy does not deliver the results it promises, and in many cases can even harm the low-income students it seeks to assist. He first addressed the costs: according to USA Today, it would amount to $70 billion annually, a burden that would most likely fall on taxpayers. He added that increased taxes often have negative consequences, citing a Wall Street Journal article that stated that the nine states that levy no income tax saw average increases in gross state product of 56.1 percent between 2001-2010, while the nine highest-taxed states saw increases of only 41 percent. The same study found that 2.5 citizens relocated to no-income tax states in the last decade. In addition to the negative economic impact, countries that have implemented free tuition have yet to see positive outcomes from that policy. The United Kingdom, for instance, according to a study conducted by the National Economic Research Bureau, experienced a 39 percent decrease in student funding in only a decade for free college – less than 8,000 per student. And in 1994, the U.K. passed a Maximum Allowable Student Number Act, which levied fines on schools that admitted more students. The study also found that the policy benefitted the rich: “The gap in degree attainment between students in the top and bottom fifth of income distribution grew from 14 to 37 percent by the end of the program,” Kellaher noted. It also found that paying the tuition for the country’s wealthiest students decreased grants that covered living expenses for disadvantaged students from $4,500 to $1,100. A similar study conducted by the economics department at MIT suggested the U.S. would likely achieve similarly negative results: “The introduction of free tuition would lead to more inequality, as students of the poorest 20 percent would experience a decrease in enrollment of 10 percent, compared to an increase of 18 percent for the wealthiest students,” he said. “Enacting this policy effectively helps bankrupt our country, taking away funds which could be allocated to sectors like our failing primary education system, and has vehemently underserved the demographic it sent out to protect.”
 
After each side was cross-examined, closing remarks were made.
 
Carlson made closing remarks for the affirmative team: “Fourty-four million people, or 25 percent of the adult population in the United States, owe $1.5 billion in student loan debt. It is not a secret that the cost of college in our country is rising rapidly.” That huge amount of debt points to how hard low-income students are struggling just for a chance to attend college, which should be a right, not a privilege, as students who meet certain academic standards should not be denied the opportunity to further their intelligence, he argued. Furthermore, the economy of the United States depends on an educated, well-prepared workforce that’s equipped to enter the job market with more than a high school diploma. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the American economy will require an advanced degree. According to the U.S. Census, only 33 percent of adults currently hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. “Something must change in order to ensure the success and prosperity of our great country, and enacting this policy will have an immeasurable positive effect,” he said. He pointed back to the current policy that Georgia has adopted, pointing out that schools currently offering free tuition include Georgia Tech and the University of Georgia, both top-13 ranked public universities. This policy is costing taxpayers zero dollars, since it’s funded by the lottery. Since this has been successful in one of our states, there is no reason it can’t succeed in others. Kellaher said he and Dundoo absolutely acknowledged the fact that this program would come with a large price tag. However, they both felt it was an investment worth making, as it will result in an educated workforce in the U.S., which will make the economy stronger. The tax cut in 2017 decreased the tax on large corporations by 1.4 trillion dollars — this alone could fund the program for dozens of years. “Our country boasts its equal opportunity for all people,” he concluded, “but we as a nation cannot truly make this claim until higher education is provided to all qualified and deserving students, because the prosperity of future generations truly does depend on it.”
 
McKelvy closed out for the negative team, noting that the Manhattan Institute has reported that economically comparable countries such as Germany, who have tuition-free public universities, have respective degree attainment rates of only 24-28 percent, which is well below that of the United States. In Italy, those rates were even lower — just 24 percent of the population has a college education. And in the UK, the government coerced universities with fines and penalties to reduce enrollments because of excess demand. In the United States, that could create a capacity expansion ranging from 37 to 58 percent, which would be challenging for universities to absorb without changing their admissions criteria. McKelvy challenged the idea that free tuition would help the disadvantaged, when studies, as cited by his debate partner, have found that it can be detrimental to low-income students. According to the Minnesota Department of Education, 5 million low-income students already benefit from college grants. Less targeted aid could motivate newly eligible students to change their college application behavior, potentially increasing competition for limited seats and crowding out some students. Depending on the distribution of test scores and income, and the socio-economic status of students who are being marginally admitted, this policy could have distributive consequences in access to higher education. Therefore, the students who stand to gain the most from free college are the rich, he argued, and giving the rich a pass without asking to pay their fair share will allow them to supplant the disadvantaged. “An MIT study predicts that the rich would win the majority of the spots in higher education by 18 percent, while poor student populations would decrease by 10 percent,” McKelvy said. In conclusion, he argued that it would be foolish to spend $70 billion every year on free college tuition while not addressing the current crisis in primary and secondary education, especially considering the questionable outcomes with free college tuition in other countries and the clear benefits of earlier intervention as far as college attendance. This policy, he concluded, is too expensive, too much of a gamble, and is not a proven way to address inequality in higher education.