The University Network

Where Free Education Stands in the U.S.

Where Free Education Stands in the U.S.

As the price of college continues to grow, so does the number of students worried about being able to complete college debt-free. According to U.S. News and World Report, in-state tuition has risen 296% between the years of 1995 and 2015, and student debt currently exceeds $1.2 trillion.

High tuition and staggering student-debt has students and politicians alike scrambling to find ways to combat this issue. One of the most popular solutions proposed is making college free. Although ideal for many, free higher education in the U.S. is tricky business.

In order for tuition-free higher education in the country to happen, it’ll take Congress to agree on a bill and tax financial transactions that will help make tuition-free education possible. Then each state has to agree to participate and by doing so, states will have to give more money to help fund higher education. This is where reluctance may occur since some states are struggling to maintain their own college aid funding afloat.

In 2015, President Obama proposed the America’s College Promise, a federal-state partnership program that calls for a federal investment of $79.7 billion over 10 years to provide two tuition-free years at community colleges. First-time students would receive tuition waivers if they qualify for resident tuition, maintain a 2.0 GPA, and enroll, at a minimum, as a half-time student. So far it has only been introduced to Congress and was referred to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training.

While no comprehensive efforts have been made at a national level, individual states continue fighting to make college affordable for their residents. The America’s College Promise program was molded after individual states like Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota that have innovative tuition-free programs.

The Tennessee Promise program was the biggest influencer for the America’s College Promise. The program is a scholarship and mentoring program that serves as a “last-dollar” scholarship, meaning it will cover the withstanding cost of tuition not covered by Pell Grants, Tennessee HOPE scholarships or any other grant aid received. After the program was implemented in 2014, 90% of high school seniors completed scholarship applications for the fall 2014 term.  To finance the program, Tennessee created an endowment fund with most of the money coming from the $300 million of lottery reserve funds. The program currently serves over 16,000 students, and has increased public education enrollment by 10%.  It has also sparked another state grant aimed at adult students with at least 30 hours of college credits, who wish to return to community college and complete their higher education.

The success of programs from states such as Tennessee, and the appeal of the America’s College Promise program, has influenced other states to follow suit with identical “Promise” programs for students interested in beginning their higher education at community colleges. Maryland, California, Washington and Hawaii have all introduced legislation for similar programs. Despite continued efforts, opposition still remains from some who think, for financial or other reasons, free higher education is not the best solution.

In order for college to be free, critics say it will cost the government more than what they already spend on Pell Grants, which is about $33.6 billion. In an op-ed for the Washington Post, professors at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Robert Archibald and David Feldman, argued that states with a higher average tuition will benefit more from tuition-free college programs. States with higher average tuition spend much less for higher education per student. States that do invest more per student, resulting in low tuition, will not see the same tax break or aid and will be left to pick up the large tab.

Others argue that making college free will create enrollment problems and lower quality education for colleges and universities. In an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal, Monica Herk, Vice President of Education Research at the Committee for Economic Development, cites the questionable retention rates and quality of instruction of some community colleges as an issue that needs reviewing before implementing free tuition at these institutions. Herk argues that students, regardless of income, will enroll at community colleges to benefit from two tuition-free years, and the possibility of overcrowding will hurt less-advantaged students, further hindering equality of opportunity.

Critics also call for legislation focusing on providing aid to students who need it the most instead of free tuition.  Economists on a panel for NPR’s podcast “Planet Money” agreed that free higher education will benefit those who can still afford college instead of those who can’t. “The proposal is too indiscriminate,” said economist Eric Maskin, a Harvard economist on the panel. “Many students can afford to pay a considerable amount toward their higher education. It is wasteful to give them a free ride.”  

Free higher education became a popular talking point again in 2016 during the presidential run. Senator Bernie Sanders was at the forefront of the conversation with free higher education topping his campaign promises, which earned him the support of many young voters.

Sanders’ free higher education proposal would eliminate tuition, drop interest rates on student loans from 4.7 percent to 2.3 percent, and allow people to refinance their loans. Sanders claimed the plan would cost government $75 billion a year, but will be paid by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculators.

After his defeat for the Democratic Party nomination, Sanders worked with Hillary Clinton to make free education a part of her campaign. Under the Clinton campaign’s plan, tuition would be eliminated for working class families who make less than $125,000 a year and community college would be tuition-free.  She proposed similar refinancing options for students with loans.

Donald Trump’s plan for higher education focused more on college affordability, not free higher education. Trump’s plan on the campaign trail was to create pressure on institutions with large endowments to invest in students and create lower tuition. Trump also proposed to cap student loan repayments at 12.5% and forgive any remaining debt after 15 years in an effort to reduce student debt. Now in office, all eyes are now on President Trump and his plan to execute these campaign promises.

The momentum to make free higher education a reality continues with individual states like New York and Rhode Island.  Both states have have begun plans that mirror those in previously mentioned states to provide their residents with tuition-free opportunities. Their plans aim to move beyond just community colleges

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced a plan, called the Excelsior Scholarships Program, that will allow New York residents to attend college for free. Governor Cuomo’s plan differentiates from other states’ tuition-free programs because his plan is not limited to just two tuition-free years at community colleges and is not open to all. Students whose families or themselves make less than $125,000 a year will be able to attend a four-year state or city university tuition-free. If approved by the New York State Legislature, the plan is estimated to cost $163 million a year and will be phased in over three years, hoping to begin in 2017.  

Rhode Island also hopes to be a pioneer for free college and become the first in the country to guarantee free higher education to all its residents. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo introduced a plan that will provide two tuition-free years to anyone who graduated from a high school in the state despite their income. The program, called The Rhode Island Promise Scholarship, will cover a student’s first two years at a community college, or their third and fourth year at the Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island. Governor Raimondo wants the proposal to be written into state law to prevent the program to be affected by annual budget politics. The proposed program is said to cost less than 1% of the state’s budget. The program hopes to begin with high school seniors who graduate this spring.

On the West Coast, San Francisco has become the first city to offer all its residents, despite income or enrollment status, complete tuition free community college.  City College of San Francisco is hoping to begin the program for the fall 2017 semester.  Free tuition will be available to all students enrolled at the college, but fees will not be covered. However, waivers for low-income students to help pay for those fees is also part of the $5.4 million yearly budget plan. The program was funded thanks to a real estate tax on property worth more than $5 million. The funding allows the school to cover all current students and still allow a 20% increase in enrollment.

With a new administration in the White House, it’s difficult to say how successful efforts to make free higher education will be at both national and state levels. But as long as attempts by those who continue to champion for free higher education remain, there is no doubt that plans to provide free higher education throughout the country will continue to emerge.