Enrichment Education

How tuition-free college could help the student debt crisis

“If we think about the future, if we think about providing opportunities for more Americans to go to college, one of the first steps would be, making it affordable and free tuition at the public level,” one expert told Changing America.
iStock

Story at a glance

  • President Biden couldn’t garner enough support to include two years of free community college in his Build Back Better Agenda. 

  • Some states, like New Mexico and New York, have implemented programs that allow residents to apply for tuition-free college. 

  • About 75 percent of students took out loans to attend two or four-year colleges and they account for about half of the $1.6 trillion of outstanding 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, yet critics of widespread student loan forgiveness argue cancelling loans for current debt holders does little to solve problems for future borrowers.  

But what if higher education were free?  

Surveys show there is an appetite for free tuition at state colleges and universities, especially when it targets qualified candidates. Politicians like Bernie Sanders and even President Biden have floated the idea of free college, invigorating the national debate over how to reign in the growing student debt crisis? 

However, a plan for tuition-free college hasn’t been able to get 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 through 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 that will provide tuition-free college to up to 35,000 New Mexicans that attend a New Mexican public or Tribal college or university. New York has also launched a scholarship program that allows eligible residents to attend certain state schools tuition free. 

The impact of tuition-free college can be significant, as the cost of college has more than doubled in the past two decades and is growing steadily by around 7 percent each year, all while wages are stagnating by comparison for young adults.  


America is changing faster than ever! Add Changing America to your Facebook or Twitter feed to stay on top of the news. 


The cost of attendance, including room and board, supplies and other fees, is roughly $25,487 per year at a public school while a four-year private, nonprofit college can cost $53,217 annually.  

All of this has fed the debate to simply make college tuition-free, enabling easier access to higher education while simultaneously lowering the volume of debt future students need to take on — as currently 43 million borrowers collectively owe around $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. 

Brian Powell, a professor of sociology at Indiana University, told Changing America that although public opinion on loan forgiveness varies, his research shows overwhelming support for free tuition. When thinking about college prospects, one of the first things people consider is tuition, he added. 

“If we think about the future, if we think about providing opportunities for more Americans to go to college, one of the first steps would be, making it affordable and free tuition at the public level,” said Powell, who authored “Who Should Pay: Higher Education, Responsibility and the Public,” alongside Natasha Quadlin, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles.  

Powell noted support for free tuition at public institutions was especially high when targeting what they referred to as qualified students – the definition for which also varied widely among those they surveyed.  

“But whatever it meant, it meant that basically if you can get into college, then you should have tuition. That’s really it. If you qualify to be in the college then free tuition should be a viable option for you.” 

One caveat, Powell noted, is that the idea of free tuition does not address soaring costs at elite private schools. 

Meanwhile, free tuition has been the focal point of several recent presidential campaigns.  

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed the concept of free college tuition when campaigning for president, pledging to guarantee tuition and debt-free public colleges, universities and trade schools by appropriating federal funds of at least $48 billion annually. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also endorsed free college when campaigning for president in 2020, offering a slightly different approach. Warren pledged to make an additional $100 billion in Pell Grant funding available so students wouldn’t need to take on so much debt to cover the cost of attendance. 

Yet some who opposed Biden’s plan, including New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R), argued that free tuition could effectively cede control of higher education to the federal government.  

“If you go down a path where the federal government is paying the bulk of the costs, you’re really telling the federal government that they now control the system,” Sununu told The Wall Street Journal last year.  

Close to 19.4 million students attended colleges and universities in fall 2020, with a majority, about 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 percent of students took out loans to attend two or four-year colleges and they account for about half of the $1.6 trillion of outstanding student loan debt. The remaining 25 percent of borrowers went to graduate schools and account for the other half of outstanding debt. 

Making college free could alleviate some of the burden students take on in order to get a college degree, however Sarah Reber, a fellow of economic studies at Brookings, told Changing America that it may not be necessary. 

Reber noted that there is a lot of financial aid available to students, through funding the federal government gives to public colleges and universities and grants awarded to low-income students.  

“I think the biggest benefit of free tuition is that it’s clearer. One major problem with the way we pay for college is that, in many states, there is pretty good financial aid for low- and moderate-income families. But families don’t know that,” said Reber. 

Education data suggests something similar, showing in one academic year over $2 billion in federal student grants go unclaimed. 

Reber believes colleges could do a better job of communicating how tuition costs can be paid for through various financial aid programs and awards, emphasizing that higher education needs to be more transparent. 

Still, Powell and Quadlin’s research suggests that convincing the public of the benefits of free public-school tuition might not be that difficult.  

“Many people in our interviews also just noted that college today is as important as high school was 50 years ago. And so, making college free, just as high school was free, is a logical extension for them as well,” Powell said.  

“Everyone, almost everyone, in the United States has a friend or relative who has children who are of age to go to college,” Powell continued. “This is a benefit that would be expansive. And that would be viewed as something that will be a public good.” 


READ MORE STORIES FROM CHANGING AMERICA 

US DRUG OVERDOSE DEATHS HIT ANOTHER RECORD HIGH 

HOW TO PREPARE FOR THE END OF THE STUDENT LOAN PAYMENT PAUSE  

HUNDREDS OF BILLS TARGETING LGBTQ+ PEOPLE UNDER CONSIDERATION NATIONWIDE, HUMAN RIGHTS CAMPAIGN SAYS 

FLORIDA SCHOOL BOARD REJECTS PLAN TO COVER HIGH SCHOOL YEARBOOK PHOTOS OF ‘DON’T SAY GAY’ PROTESTS 

ANONYMOUS DONOR PAYS OFF STUDENT DEBT FOR TEXAS STUDENTS