Nothing is free in a college education
I gravitate to what’s free: free soda, free makeover, free key chain, free water bottle. Free is good. It’s no wonder, then, I’m attracted to the concept of a free college education. After all, learning new knowledge can enhance a life, help find answers, make new connections to old ideas, even be an adventure and status symbol. Unfortunately, free college has a hitch. While it is free financially, it involves a cost. One will have to give up free time to read difficult texts, study, take tests, write essays, do research, and work with other students on projects. Even if the tuition is free, it is a time to focus, to strive, and to get comfortable with discipline and hard work. It is a time of some rewards, like good grades, and some punishment, like working on a math problem or accounting problem for hours to find one answer.
True enough, our country would benefit if everyone went to college. College students certainly learn important ideas from literature, philosophies, communication methods, writing strategies, and the big prize, analysis. They learn to listen more and appreciate differing opinions. They become exposed to and appreciate diversity in the classroom and on campus. Some even get a certification that will help them launch a career or a diploma that will offer them more earning power in the workplace.
Presently, those who pay for college and have skin in the game in the form of student debt, family contributions, or one’s own effort from employment, and have every reason to stay the course, many don’t. The U.S. Department of Education reports 40 percent of students who begin college will not graduate. Is that because they can no longer come up with money for tuition/room/board? For some that may be true. But for so many more, it is not a matter of money. It is a matter of determination, resilience, desire, and hard mental work. It requires exchanging free time, play time, social media time, fun computer time, friend time, TV time, video game time for time in front of books, research documents, and essay drafts. It is not hard work in the physical sense, but in the mental sense, (better known as hard work for the brain.) Reading college level texts, looking up new words, finding the main ideas, without a high school type study guide, learning how to research, applying research to expand ideas, and writing analysis papers take monumental mental work.
Another obstacle to college success is students have to face the fact that some people learn faster than others. Some read faster and understand the text the first time around. Some write with an expanded vocabulary. Students in college need to face their present level of cognitive ability and work from where they are now to get to the finish line that is a certification/degree. This is a real eye-opener. Many verbalize that it is unfair that they will have to work twice as hard as the student across from them to get a B in the course. It takes a mighty dose of resilience and desire to keep going. Free tuition doesn’t affect this issue.
As a Writing Specialist for St. Louis Community College’s Writing Center for fourteen years, I’ve worked with many students who want to go to college but don’t want to discipline themselves to do college level work. My take is that those who drop out do so more because they are not willing to continue the mission of mental work than because of a shortage of funds. Telling the world “I’m out of money” is so much more acceptable than saying “I didn’t like spending fifteen hours a week in class and another fifteen hours reading, studying and writing.”
Maybe I’m wrong. Let’s see what free college will do for students. Maybe it will be the guiding impetus to inspire them to work their brains like never before. Maybe they will be so grateful for the experience, they will dedicate themselves to expand their minds through continual and disciplined study, analysis, research, and writing. If they do, they will learn firsthand, nothing is totally free, especially a college education.
– Terry Fairchild
Writing Center Specialist
Meramec Writing Center