Can anything truly be free? That is often the question. Within the field of education, many push for low to no-cost options. A tenet of both Bernie Sanders’ and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns in the presidential election was “free college”, which would involved Pell Grants, and an increased focus on the community college system. But beyond an entire free college policy, I wanted to see what is currently free AT college. Often, what students can use outside of the classroom is as significant as education itself, so I was curious. What resources and amenities are available at no cost to students on university campuses? And are these truly free?
Sitting in my dorm with my roommate and a few friends, a discussion regarding schools finances ensued. All of us being frequent recreation facility users, we were discussing the merits of a free student gym membership. Currently, a year-long gym membership at Penn State costs $110. And while this may seem a steep price, a year-long membership at Planet Fitness costs $250/yr., albeit with some added amenities. On the other hand, many of us have friends at colleges where gym membership is free (with tuition). An argument could be made here to incentivize healthy living on campus for students by providing facilities at no added cost. On the other hand, what about those students who choose not to go to the gym, cannot due to physical limitations, or use off-campus facilities? Would enacting such a policy not cause their tuition to unjustly rise for non-academic purposes? This does seem to be the case in private institutions which already offer such opportunity, but with much larger price tags.
Another simple, yet similarly controversial amenity, is laundry.. I recall an old classmate telling her mother that laundry services are “free” at the university she was planning on attending. To that, her mother responded, “It better be”, referring to Lafayette College’s roughly $49,000 tuition and fees, without accounting for room and board. While a full load, washed and dried, costs $2.00 at University Park, the tuition cost of an-instate student is significantly less compared to someone investing in a private education. Maybe this is where it shows that free really is not so free.
Apart from the nitty gritty of facilities and basic health and hygiene, universities use their resources to improve the quality of student life through presentations and subsidized events. Every week, I receive emails listing reduced price or free tickets for students to see politicians, comedians, or listen to renowned musicians. I was able to watch a famous a capella group perform at a discounted price, and even today, Patrick and Amy Kennedy are coming to speaking on campus at no added cost to students. Looking at other schools, George Washington University hosts notable government officials, authors, and celebrities and has seen such figures as Barack Obama, and Apple CEO Tim Cook. And to add one for theatre fanatics, NYU is able to provide students with Broadway tickets at up to 75% less than face value. The list goes on.
Overall, it appears that many of the free services available to college students need to be paid for in some way, and often out of their own, or their family’s, pockets. At a time of such economic difficulty, some spending may indeed be wasteful. The issue may be a matter of using money wisely. For instance, the student government of Penn State, UPUA, has a yearly budget of $139,628.55. While some of this money goes to annual programs and needs of the student body, each year they ask for student feedback via an initiative called “What to Fix”. Recently, they decided to put massage chairs in the HUB lounge, but this has been a point of contention among some. Some see it as an unwise choice of spending, and believe improving certain equipment and facilities should be prioritized. However, this initiative was voted upon by students for students. Creating change can only largely be achieved by making one’s voice heard. On the other hand, some, such as Purdue University’s President Mitch Daniels, state that colleges need to adjust their spending of budgets, rather than forcing families to adjust their own budgets (USA Today). In his eyes, college is becoming too lavish in its amenities and losing focus of the essentials. How can we ever reduce college costs if we insist upon “free” services? And so, the debate continues.
If you want some continued food for thought, Onward State published an interesting article on the Gym Membership Fee debate in 2014: