Some have made assumptions that if a college education was free to everyone then students wouldn’t take it seriously and that completed degrees would be meaningless. However, at Berea College we’ve found just the opposite–a tuition-free education doesn’t produce apathy, but determination, and graduating debt free allows students to dismantle poverty and pursue their passions. Read on to dismantle any myths you may have heard regarding free education for all.

Myth No. 1 – If college is free then

students will major in useless subjects
black and white image of a person stacking pencils

What is considered useful or useless is highly subjective, but employers continue to value graduates with a breadth of knowledge. Regardless of major, a college education builds “soft skills” employers are looking for, like critical and creative thinking, the ability to analyze and interpret data and the ability to communicate clearly. In addition, some majors that seem limited on the surface are useful for the kinds of skills, knowledge and attitudes they instill in students.

Education isn’t necessarily about just getting a job, but if gainful employment is the measure of a degree’s usefulness, then we can let the country’s employers speak to the value of a liberal arts education. According to a study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the majority of U.S. employers consider skills developed in college to be very important. These skills include those mentioned above but also the ability to work in teams; digital literacy; ethical judgment and reasoning; and the ability to locate, evaluate and use information in decision making. Whatever path a student chooses in college, these are the valuable skills they develop while attending.

And while we shouldn’t hazard a guess as to which majors are thought to be “useless,” we can note that majors without obvious vocational parallels can be useful in other ways. According to the Law School Admissions Council, classics majors tended to score highest on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), and philosophy majors were most likely to be admitted to law school. Other top-performing majors included policy studies, international relations, art history and mathematics.

Myth No. 2 – If college is free then

the degree will be worthless

Education is valuable on its own, but according to a study from Georgetown University, out of the 55 million job openings in the past 10 years, only 12 percent did not require a diploma of any kind. So a high school education is the minimum requirement for finding gainful employment and is therefore valuable. And the difference between a high school diploma and a college degree amounts to a million dollars in earning differentials, according to the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.

black and white image of a graduation cap in a trash can

Not everyone will choose to go to college, and that’s okay. But because of significant growth in the healthcare and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. require postsecondary education or training beyond high school.

Nearly half of the jobs coming available are newly created jobs, meaning that skills gained in a post-secondary environment, like judgment, decision-making, communication, analysis and administration, will be the most in demand. What’s more, the United States fell short by 5 million workers with post-secondary education in 2020, which makes college access an even more crucial issue.

In summary, for one-third of the population, there are jobs available that do not require education beyond high school. But for the remaining two-thirds, especially as 31 million jobs come available due to retirements, a college education is essential. And because of that, even if “everybody” had a college degree, post-secondary education—beyond its intrinsic value—will never be devalued. That degree is the best preparation for jobs that don’t even exist today.

Myth No. 3 – If college is free then

students will not try as hard
black and white image of a classroom with empty desks

Berea College is tuition free and enrolls nearly 100 percent Pell-grant recipients with a high graduation rate. Here, there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between free college and apathy. Berea students are more invested in completing their degree because they recognize the great opportunity they have been given.  

So many students nationwide face choices between going to work and going to class, because their job(s) is helping pay for their college costs. A recent study from Student Loan Hero, a debt management company, found that up to 65 percent of college students work while they are enrolled full-time, and a significant portion of them work more than 20 hours a week. The survey also found that students who have loans are much more likely to be engaged in part-time jobs than others.

Data from the National College Health Assessment shows that 75 percent of U.S. students experienced moderate to high financial stress in the past 12 months. Another study, from the Hope Center, showed that almost half of students experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days, and 17 percent experienced homelessness in the past year. With the cost of attending college increasing by 31 percent just over the past decade, it’s not surprising that college students face economic stressors while trying to obtain a degree, or that these stressors cause an increase in attrition.

At Berea College, we’ve discovered that mitigating financial stress (and the attendant mental and emotional stress) in a student’s life is a recipe for success. By not charging tuition and offering campus jobs with limited hours (10-12 per week) that don’t interfere with classes, Berea allows students to focus on their studies rather than on just surviving. What we haven’t found is an apathetic student body. On the contrary, our students succeed in a rigorous and demanding curriculum, and in the end, they are proud of what they have accomplished.

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