Chase Thomas spoke about favoring college education that is free of student debt, and he suggested that funding could be found in existing government budgets. Photo by Lincoln Op’t Hof

At the Pizza and Politics session on education that was held in the Ragan Theater on March 13, attendees and panelists voiced concerns about making college free in the U.S., but also discussed the belief that free higher education will be beneficial long term.

Participants were especially concerned with where funding for a tuition-free higher education system would come from.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total amount of tuition and fees collected by public institutions in fiscal year 2014 was just short of $58 billion.

Linda Makin, UVU vice president of Planning, Budget and Human Resources, presented at the beginning of the session. She explained that 54 percent of the appropriated budget — the minimum amount the university needs to operate — comes from tuition and fees.

Chase Thomas, policy and advocacy counsel with Alliance for a Better Utah and a panelist, proposed several places within governmental budget from which funding could be obtained.

“You can see what the federal government values by making the $2 trillion tax cut that mostly goes to corporations,” Thomas said.

Thomas suggested redirecting money, which is often wasted on unnecessary expenses, from areas such as military budget to help fund education.

Panelists addressed the concern that a bachelor’s degree might become the new high school diploma.

Jaxon Olsen, the UVUSA chief justice and a panelist, suggested that having more people with college degrees would be a good thing, as it would help raise the educational standard in a world economy that is moving toward automation and specialization.

“I forgot how many millions of jobs it is, but by like 2030, automation is going to decimate millions of jobs, and we have to start asking ourselves the question, ‘Is it more fiscally conservative to not fund education now, or is it more fiscally conservative to fund education right now,’ so when that time hits, we will have a more specialized workforce ready for new jobs,” Olsen said. “If we have a bunch of unemployed people in the future, it’s going to cost the federal government a lot of money, and it is going to cost our economy even more.”

Sam Evans, a biotechnology sophomore, spoke about his experience being homeschooled and how his family paid for an education system that he did not use or benefit from. He also gave examples from his life to express that others might not value something that they do not have to work or pay for.

“How are we going to ensure that we don’t lose the value of education?” Evans asked panelists. “How are we going to make sure that people value the education that they are given?”

Panelists first addressed some points that Evans made, then continued by answering his question.

“I would argue that you paying for somebody else’s education, even though you were homeschooled, has actually benefited you,” Olsen said in response. “When we educate everyone, we build a stronger economy. Study after study shows that. Nations around the globe understand that.”

Olsen also acknowledged that there will always be people who take advantage of situations, but that the long term effect would outweigh the negative possibilities.

Thomas described how there are many government programs that do not benefit everyone. He used the example of roads and how paying taxes that are used for a road on the other side of the state might not directly impact every person, but it will keep roads public.

Attendees and panelists also talked about creating incentives for people to pursue higher education, while limiting cost and debt.

The Utah state legislature has been processing a bill that would provide incentive for individuals in certain degree programs to work in Utah after graduation.

Senate Bill 104, Talent Development and Retention Strategy, which was drafted to take effect in the 2019 fiscal year, will allocate $2.5 million to pay off student loans for individuals who gain degrees in approved fields and stay in Utah to work approved jobs after graduation.