What’s the Deal With Free College?

What’s the Deal With Free College?

August 31, 2019 35 By Stanley Isaacs


A college degree has become a basic credential for many jobs, but the cost of that degree is rising— and becoming prohibitively expensive for millions of Americans. Student debt is a national crisis; one voters are pressing politicians to address— but it’s not enough for candidates and policymakers to say that they are for free college— they need the policy to back it up. A jarring statistic carried headlines in 2012: Americans were more than a $1 trillion in student debt. And it only took 6 years to add $500 billion more to that number. By 2016, the rapid rise of student debt led national political figures, not only to consider how student debt was not only affecting whether Americans went to college, but what happened to them afterwards. How it affects their ability to buy homes; get married; save money. Bernie Sanders, following a wave of “free college” policies at the local and state level, advocated for free college for all. And Hillary Clinton offered her own free-college proposal, ensuring that free college would be a staple of the Democratic platform. Student loans were supposed to be a tool, not the key, they argued. It was a failed experiment that had ruined a generation of Americans. And free college ensured that the next generation wouldn’t suffer under debt to get an education that had become a requirement. As Democratic candidates are lining up to run against Trump in 2020, a free college proposal has practically become an entrance fee. Most Democratic candidates have announced that they support it. But the specifics are where things get messy. Free college could make things more equitable, or it could further inequality. A free college plan could cover tuition, and the government would cover the tuition after all other grant aid is applied— such as Pell grants, which are federal grants for up to $6,000 for low-income students in a system called last-dollar in. But that means that wealthier students get more from the program. Pell often covers most of tuition at public institutions, and students who need Pell grants to pay for books, or housing, or food—instead of just their tuition—will be left without it. Then there’s the question of what happens to the students who have already taken on debt: Is that cancelled? Refinanced? The nuts and bolts of education proposals in the 2020 election are critical to understanding whether or not, 6 years from now, the student debt bubble reaches 2.5 trillion; or even 3 trillion. Free college is a intriguing policy because it’s, generally, an attractive idea. It’s not a question of whether or not Democrats will support free college, but what that support means. It could be support for federal government incentives—such as a one-to-one match for state funding for free college programs; it could be massively expanding access to the Pell grant program so that working and middle class families are eligible, and making those last-dollar programs first-dollar so that the grants goes further; or it could mean doing both of those things, and refinancing the loans of the students who are already in debt. Voters want policy specifics instead of generalizing, sweeping ideas. And they want to make sure that the 40 million Americans who have already been trapped by student debt aren’t left out in the cold.