The story at a glance
- President Biden couldn’t garner enough support to include two years of free community college in his Build Back Better program.
- Some states, such as New Mexico and New York, have programs in place that allow residents to apply for college tuition-free.
- About 75% of students took out loans to attend two- or four-year colleges, and they account for about half of the $1.6 trillion in student loan debt.
The $1.6 trillion student debt crisis has led President Biden to publicly consider forgiving at least $10,000 per federal borrower, but critics of widespread student loan forgiveness argue that loan forgiveness for current debt holders does not solve the problems of future borrowers.
What if higher education was free?
Surveys show that there is an appetite for free tuition at state colleges and universities, especially when targeting qualified applicants. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and even President Biden have floated the idea of free college, reinvigorating the national debate about how to reign in the growing student debt crisis?
However, a plan for a tuition-free college was unable to pass through Congress, as first lady Jill Biden confirmed in February when the president’s proposal to make two years of community college free for eligible students did not garner enough Democratic votes to pass. by the Senate.
Some states have taken the matter into their own hands, offering options for a tuition-free college degree. New Mexico recently passed legislation which will provide tuition-free college to up to 35,000 New Mexicans attending a public or tribal New Mexico college or university. New York also has launched a scholarship program which allows eligible residents to attend certain public schools tuition-free.
The impact of free college studies can be significant, because the cost of college has more than doubled over the past two decades and is growing steadily at around 7% each year, while salaries stagnate in comparison for young adults.
The cost of attendance, including room and board, supplies, and other fees, is about $25,487 per year at a public school, while a private, nonprofit four-year college can cost $53. $217 per year.
All of this has fueled the debate over simply making university tuition free, allowing easier access to higher education while simultaneously reducing the amount of debt prospective students have to take on – as currently 43 million borrowers collectively owe approximately $1.6 trillion in student loan debt.
Brian Powell, a sociology professor at Indiana University, told Changing America that while public opinion on loan forgiveness varies, his research shows overwhelming support for free tuition. When thinking about college education prospects, one of the first things people consider is tuition fees, he added.
“If we’re thinking about the future, if we’re thinking about giving more Americans the opportunity to go to college, one of the first steps would be to make tuition affordable and free to the public,” said Powell, author of “Who Should Pay: Higher Education, Responsibility and the Public,” alongside Natasha Quadlin, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Powell noted that support for free tuition at public institutions was particularly high when they targeted what they called qualified students – the definition of which also varied widely among those polled.
“But whatever that meant, it meant that if you could get into college, you should have tuition. That’s really it. If you qualify for college, free tuition should be a viable option for you.
One caveat, Powell noted, is that the idea of free tuition doesn’t solve skyrocketing costs at elite private schools.
Meanwhile, free tuition has been a focus of several recent presidential campaigns.
Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed the concept of free tuition during his presidential campaign, pledging to guarantee tuition-free and debt-free public colleges, universities and trade schools by appropriating federal funds of at least $48 billion a year.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also approved free college during his presidential campaign in 2020, offering a slightly different approach. Warren is committed to make an additional $100 billion in Pell Grant funding available so students don’t have to go into so much debt to cover tuition.
Still, some who have opposed Biden’s plan, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), have argued that free tuition could effectively cede control of higher education to the federal government.
“If you go down a path where the feds pay most of the cost, you’re really telling the feds that they’re now in control of the system,” Sununu told the Wall Street Journal Last year.
Near 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities in fall 2020, with a majority, around 16.2 million, attending undergraduate programs while 3.1 million attended graduate programs. Most attended public schools, at 14 million, while 5.4 million went to private institutions.
About 75% of students have taken out loans to attend two- or four-year colleges and they account for about half of the $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. The remaining 25% of borrowers went on to graduate school and account for the other half of outstanding debt.
Making college free might ease some of the burden students have to take on to earn a college degree, but Sarah Reber, an economics fellow at Brookings, told Changing America that might not be necessary.
Reber noted that there is plenty of financial aid available for students, through federal government funding for public colleges and universities and grants for low-income students.
“I think the biggest benefit of free tuition is that it’s clearer. A major problem with how we pay for college is that in many states there is pretty good financial aid for low- and middle-income families. But the families don’t know that,” Reber said.
Education data suggests something similar, showing that in an academic year, more than $2 billion in federal student grants goes unclaimed.
Reber thinks colleges could communicate better about how tuition can be paid for through various financial aid and award programs, stressing that higher education needs to be more transparent.
Yet Powell and Quadlin’s research suggests that convincing the public of the benefits of free public school tuition may not be so difficult.
“Many people in our interviews also noted that college today is as important as high school was 50 years ago. And so making college free, just like high school was free, is also a logical extension for them,” Powell said.
“Everyone, almost everyone, in the United States has a friend or relative who has college-aged children,” Powell continued. “It is an advantage that would be considerable. And that would be considered something that will be a public good.
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Published in May. 20, 2022