By Keith Murray, Faculty of Marketing at Bryant University

Governor Gina Raimondo has proposed making two years of college free in Rhode Island.  Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sander proposed four.  While that sounds nice, making something that take a lot of money “cost-free” is a bad call.  It would cause a lot of people—taxpayers, specifically—to pay for what might fundamentally benefit in the end only the individual degree recipient. While in theory there’s a societal payoff for everyone, it would be a high and unfair price for ordinary people to have to pay.  Several points should be recognized.

[1] People don’t appreciate what they’re not invested in.  Data show that a year in college costs is around $28,000—not counting room and board. Thus, tuition-free education would roughly be the equivalent of a 22 year old getting a cool $100,000 at the end of four years.

But making college free would be similar to extending high school for four more years and expecting it to be highly valued—which high school presently isn’t.  Getting college students to put “skin in the game” is essential for them to be prepared to show what they capable of when college is over.

[2] Attending an elite college isn’t necessary. Despite what most people think, it isn’t that important to attend a renowned, high-cost institution to become successful in life. The specialness of having a degree from an revered institution quickly has less and less meaning over time as a grad makes his or her way in the world; instead, what accomplishes over-takes how important whereone attended college.

[3] Picking the right major is important. For most grads what they major in is how they establish their early career bona fides. This means that a college student should be pretty confident that he or she is prepared to work and accept the pay that goes with a particular calling in their major field, at least for a good while.

Thus, one should look around before choosing a college major and have a pretty good idea of what the job “marketplace” might be like and what starting salaries are for a chosen field of study. Picking the right subject to focus on shouldn’t be a roll of the dice, or with an attitude like “this sounds interesting.”

[4] Others can help with paying for tuition. As to paying for college—as in all of life–paying less is always better than more and a fair number of opportunities exist to reduce the cost of college, like scholarships, grants, interest-free loans, and assistantships. If someone is serious about going to college and is willing to put the effort in, all kinds of local, regional, and national scholarship and aid sources exist; the payoff to doing so can almost always be measured in real, financial terms.

Failing to attract—or even in addition to—financial aid, college students should strive to land a part-time job while studying to defray costs—the evidence shows that students who have part-time work while in college actually get better grades than those who don’t.

[5] People should be ready to pay for what they value. In the end, a person shouldn’t be shocked at graduation to learn what they should have known all along. If anyone reasonably expects to have a college debt, they should make an up-front decision to figuratively skim $10,000 or $15,000 right off the top of a starting salary for however long it takes to pay it off.

While this means that one effectively “nets” a lesser disposable income [indeed from a good salary] in the early years of a career, this should not be especially disappointing.  Consuming more beans and rice for the first few years is a small price to pay for a gratifying career and in the long-run an above-average annual income for one’s professional lifetime.

[6] It’s time to be an adult.  Lost in the current political debate is the fact that as it is, college is already substantially subsidized by benefactors, church organizations, taxpayers and alumni contributors. Deciding to making college even more cost free ought not to be a liberal or conservative issue; instead, it is a matter of simply being an adult about a long-term, high-cost, but in the end a very valuable personal and professional business decision.