To rebuild America’s economy in a way that offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, federal support for free college tuition should be a priority in any economic recovery plan in 2021.
Research shows that the private and public economic benefit of free college tuition would outweigh the cost. That’s why half of the states in the country already have some form of free college tuition.
The Democratic Party 2020 platform calls for making two years of community college tuition free with a federal/state partnership similar to the Obama administration’s 2015 plan. It envisions a program as universal and free as K-12 education is today, with all the sustainable benefits such programs (including Social Security and Medicare) enjoy. It also calls for making four years of public college tuition free, again in partnership with states, for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.
The Republican Party didn't adopt a platform for this election deferring to President Trump’s policies which among other things stand in opposition to free college. Congressional Republicans, unlike many of their state counterparts, have also not supported free college tuition in the past. However, it should be noted that the very first state free college tuition program was initiated in 2015 by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican and passed by that state’s very conservative state legislature. Subsequently, deep red states with Republican majorities in their state legislature such as West Virginia, Kentucky, and Arkansas have adopted similar programs.
Establishing free college tuition benefits for Americans would be the 21st century equivalent of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration initiative. That program not only created immediate work for the unemployed, but also offered skills training for nearly 8 million unskilled workers in the 1930s. Just as we did in the 20th century, by laying the foundation for our current system of universal free high school education and rewarding our World War II veterans with free college tuition to help ease their way back into the workforce, the 21st century system of higher education we build must include the opportunity for everyone to attend college tuition free.
Eliminating tuition for four years at all public colleges and universities would cost taxpayers $79 billion a year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Consider, however, that the federal government spent $91 billion in 2016 on policies that subsidized college attendance. At least some of that could be used to help make public higher education institutions tuition-free.
Free college tuition programs have proven effective in helping mitigate the system’s current inequities by increasing college enrollment, lowering dependence on student loan debt and improving completion rates, especially among students of color and lower income students who are often the first in their family to attend college.
In the first year of the Tennessee Promise, community college enrollment increased by 24.7% causing 4,000 more students to enroll. The percentage of blacks in that state’s community college population increased from 14% to 19% and the proportion of Hispanics increased from 4% to 5%.
Students who attend community college tuition free also graduate at higher rates. Tennessee’s first Promise student cohort had a 52.6% success rate compared to only a 38.9% success rate for their non-Promise peers. After two years of free college tuition, Rhode Island’s college-promise program saw its community college graduation rate triple and the graduation rate among students of color increase ninefold.
The impact on student debt is more obvious. Tennessee, for instance, saw its applications for student loans decrease by 17% in the first year of its program, with loan amounts decreasing by 12%. At the same time, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications soared, with 40% of the entire nation’s increase in applications originating in that state in the first year of their Promise program.
Wage inequality by education, already dreadful before the pandemic, is getting worse. In May, the unemployment rate among workers without a high school diploma was nearly triple the rate of workers with a bachelor’s degree. No matter what Congress does to provide support to those affected by the pandemic and the ensuing recession, employment prospects for far too many people in our workforce will remain bleak after the pandemic recedes. Today, the fastest growing sectors of the economy are in health care, computers, and information technology. To have a real shot at a job in those sectors, workers need a college credential of some form such as an industry-recognized skills certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
The surest way to make the proven benefits of higher education available to everyone is to make college tuition free, and the federal government should help make that happen.
Morley Winograd is president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition. Max Lubin is CEO of Rise, a student-led nonprofit organization advocating for free college.
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.