The Power of a Promise

Posted by Wyatt Larkin on January 21, 2016 at 9:23 AM

Average yearly tuition at a four-year college has risen to over $21,000 a year. Public college tuition rates have spiked to an average of almost $8,000 a year for in-state students. Americans owe more money on their student loans than they do on all the cars on the road today.

Despite these depressing facts, many people believe that our current system is working. Even many of those who criticize it do not see a problem with the structure of the system only with the amount of money being invested in it. This defense of the current system will continue to slow the progress of needed reforms in how we finance higher education in this country until an overwhelming majority of Americans embrace a new vision of free and universal higher education for the 21st century, just as earlier generations did for primary and high school education in previous centuries. The only way to restore economic mobility in this country is to give everyone the opportunity to earn a college or technical degree, regardless of their family’s income.   

Almost all American’s believe that such an education is important to the future of their children but the vast majority believe it is unaffordable for them or people they know. In 2013, Gallup found that 72% of Americans thought having a post-secondary degree or certificate was very important; only 25% believed it is was just somewhat important. But when it comes to cost, 74% of Americans believe that higher education is not affordable for everyone who needs it. As a result, many low income children grow up seeing higher education beyond their financial possibilities, unaware of the aid that is available to them. The huge and ever growing sticker prices on college tuition are enough to keep some low-income families from even considering going to college. For example, when Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam (R) made his state’s community colleges tuition free, enrollment jumped 16%, demonstrating the debilitating effect the perception of the high cost of college is having on student enrollment.

Defenders of our current “high-tuition, high-aid” system, who exist all over the political spectrum, argue that targeting resources to low-income students is the most efficient and most progressive way to distribute “the very limited resources” that exist in higher education. They argue against free public higher-education because they believe that it will distribute limited resources to people who don’t need help and would take away from those that need it most. But this approach leaves many student and families stuck in the middle with tuition that is unaffordable and without enough aid to pay for it, leaving them no choice but to take on enormous amounts of student debt and many. The same low-income students this system is meant to support also suffer from the the complexity and obscurity of the system.  

The Kalamazoo Promise points the way to a better approach and demonstrates the benefits that flow from a universal, free system of higher education.  It pays most or all of the tuition for Kalamazoo Public School graduates at the state’s public colleges and universities, plus a handful of private schools. But as Janice Brown, Executive Director Emeritus of the Kalamazoo Promise, told the Campaign for Free College Tuition’s Pacific Northwest Summit on College Affordability, the cultural change the Promise has caused in both the students and the schools is more important than the money. “The rate of students earning bachelor’s degrees has gone from 30 to 40 percent, and the percentage earning postsecondary degrees overall — including associate’s degrees — has gone from 36 to 48 percent.” Despite its universal approach, the students whose college performance has gone up the most are minorities and women.

CFCT President Morley Winograd  summarized the results in his own remarks to the Pacific Northwest Summit on College Affordability, “when going to college isn't about income and where you come from, we see attitudes change. It is the single most important thing that we can do, from a public policy perspective, to improve people's lives. It is the best thing to do because it is the only thing that shows an improvement in performance and attitudes not only at the college level, but also K-12."

I agree!  This is why I advocate for visionary reform as we move forward, embracing the benefits of a universal higher education program, in order to reestablish opportunity for all and break down the financial barriers of higher education in this country.  We do not need to jeopardize the wellbeing of low-income students in order to help middle class families afford college. Both are possible. Universal access to higher education would benefit everyone and is within our nation’s reach.


George Markarian, Policy Coordinator, Campaign for Free College Tuition   

We can't do this alone!

Our goal is to make higher education a possibility for every American, without regard to their financial circumstances.

We have a lot to do and not much time to do it, so your support is critical for our campaign to succeed. It’s with your investment that we can fundamentally reform how higher education is financed in this country, opening the doors to a more equitable society.

If you agree with our goal, our plan, and the urgency of the problem, we ask that you give what you can to help us write the next chapter in our nation’s history of continuously expanding access to universal, free education.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.

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