Free college — already a reality in some European countries — is gaining traction among U.S. politicians. The current pandemic could push plans into action.

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Should College Be Free?


  • Rising tuition costs land most students in debt, raising questions about the ROI of college.
  • Democrats seek to address this issue through some form of student loan forgiveness.
  • Many debate the feasibility and effectiveness of free college in the U.S.

When Senator Bernie Sanders promoted his plan for free college back in 2016, the progressive idea met with some skepticism. Where would the money come from? Would students benefit equitably? Would college really be free?

Since then, free college has become a major policy point for Democrats, adopted by several candidates in the 2020 presidential campaign. Most recently, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, put forward a middle-of-the-road plan for free college.

Details of free-college plans vary, but most rely on states matching federal contributions to make up 100% of tuition costs for in-state students. Covering college's steep tuition rates would require new taxes, which Sanders proposes be levied on Wall Street.

“In the 1950s and 1960s, it was possible to graduate from high school and move right into a decent-paying job with good benefits. … Unfortunately, today, for too many Americans, it’s not a possibility.”

A preference for higher taxes and more comprehensive public education follows the example of several European countries. In Germany, for instance, both German and international students pay only a semester fee of around $170 to attend college.

Meanwhile, average student loan debt in the U.S. sits at $32,731. As college tuition ticks up each year, students and their families take out hefty loans to cover tuition, fees, and living expenses. With student loan debt at a towering $1.6 trillion and the national default rate at over 10%, many approve of higher education reform.

In addition to the college affordability crisis, the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 is set to disrupt higher education. Without access to the money and resources that support academic success, the opportunity gap between low- and high-income students threatens to widen.

To ensure that college keeps its promise of social mobility, students and schools are calling for greater government support.

Joe Biden speaks from a podium on a cleart day, his finger pointed in the air and the St. Louis Gateway Arch framed behind him.
Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign rally in St. Louis, Missouri, on March 7, 2020. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

3 Reasons Why College Should Be Free

College Creates Futures

College is a proven tool for social mobility, propelling graduates into solid middle-class jobs. Retaining college's potential for creating opportunity and pay equity in the future means making it accessible now.

Bachelor's degrees have replaced high school diplomas as the basic qualification for most jobs. But while K-12 education remains free in the U.S., postsecondary education comes at a steep price.

This setup essentially forces young people to pay now for the life they want to have, or settle for making less over the course of their working years.

Education Boosts the Economy

Critics of free-college plans say that a lack of free education hasn't impeded American progress. But access to free college might have actually spurred it on.

Almost half of all U.S. states already offer programs that provide tuition-free college to select students.

The GI Bill® connected more than 2 million veterans to free education. Many would have likely never attended college without the law. This national investment in education paid off with a booming postwar economy.

Now, many call for a similar plan to help those who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan recently announced her intent to provide free college to the state's essential pandemic workers.

Even outside the pandemic, nearly half of all states maintain programs that offer tuition-free college to certain students.

But state programs may not be enough. A federally funded, free-college program akin to the GI Bill could help Americans revamp their skills and repower the economy.

Free College Would Narrow the Opportunity Gap

The old adage that says you need to have money to make money applies to the U.S. higher education system as well.

While federal financial aid and scholarships can help students afford college, these resources can be challenging to understand and access. What's more, they're largely used by students with college-savvy parents and school counselors guiding students' college prep.

The opportunity gap leaves behind minority and low-income students at every educational level. The inability to afford college is the last — and widest — gap. For prospective students who don't have the guidance necessary to navigate existing aid options, universal free college could be a lifeline.

Under Joe Biden’s plan, only students whose families make less than $125,000 a year would be eligible for free college tuition.

To ensure that free college tuition goes only to those who can't pay for it, Biden's educational policy follows Senator Elizabeth Warren's proposal rather than Sanders' by imposing an income limit for free college: Only families making less than $125,000 per year would be eligible.

The concern that the wealthy will benefit from free college more than the poor arises in part from the fact that only a small percentage of first-generation and low-income students make it to graduation. Without the high premium placed on higher education, though, this trend could change.

In any case, universal public systems are designed to help everybody; worrying whether the rich will benefit is beside the point.

In a 2015 op-ed for The Washington Post, Sanders proclaimed that no one should be excluded, not when education is "the basis for full economic and political participation, and … all prosperity."

Bernie Sanders holds up his hand while speaking into a microphone on a theater stage.
Former Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders spoke in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, on March 9, 2020. (Photo by Tim Vizer/AFP/Getty Images)

3 Reasons Why College Should Not Be Free

The Free-College Model Is Unproven

Proponents of free college claim that it will lead to a more educated population, but there's no clear link between free college and an educated populace. In fact, the three most college-educated countries — South Korea, Japan, and Canada — do not offer free college.

Data simply doesn't support the argument that a lack of free education will leave the country at a competitive disadvantage.

The U.S. has the highest average tuition rates in the world and funnels a smaller percentage of federal funds into higher education than do other countries. Yet the U.S. also boasts one of the highest enrollment percentages, with around 20 million students currently attending college.

Financial Aid Already Reduces the Cost of College

Despite the often shocking sticker price of college, many students don't pay the full amount. In the 2017-18 school year, 86% of students received financial aid, including Pell Grants for low-income students.

Students who can’t afford college can look into options such as Pell Grants and public service loan forgiveness.

Factoring in aid from the federal government, state, and school can dramatically reduce the cost of college, sometimes even making it free.

Those who can't afford college may consider options such as Pell Grants and public service loan forgiveness, which cancels the remaining educational debt for students who work in public service for 10 years.

These debt-forgiveness programs echo the free-college models of some European countries, where students receive a free postsecondary education in exchange for serving the country for a period of time after graduation.

College — Not Just Tuition — Needs an Overhaul

Plans to subsidize college at greater levels assume that the U.S. higher education system is working well for most students, but the reality is that 40% of first-time, full-time college students fail to graduate within six years.

If the cost of education alone forces students to drop out, free college should presumably result in higher completion rates.

But as author and educational strategist Michael B. Horn points out, although Pell Grants make community college free for low-income students, completion rates at two-year schools are even lower than they are at four-year institutions.

“Making tuition and fees free to students is unlikely to move the needle much ... community college is already free to low-income students … and yet we continue to see paltry completion rates.”

According to a 2019 report on college completion by ReUp Education, the top reason that students leave college isn't financial hardship but rather the difficulty of juggling life responsibilities. The low completion rates suggest that most college students need streamlined, time-effective education options.

Traditional college, even when free, simply doesn't work for many low-income, minority, and nontraditional students. Pushing students toward a four-year liberal arts education ignores more cost- and time-effective alternatives, such as online programs, vocational training, and skill-specific bootcamps.

A group of college students pal around on a campus quad.

The Future of Free College in the U.S.

Lifetime earnings data indicates that college pays off. The return on investment of a college degree is substantial enough to outpace the growing cost of tuition.

Unfortunately, around half of college students fail to graduate. These people end up saddled with student debt and never get to see their education pay dividends.

Making college — as well as its lifetime career benefits — more accessible means reducing costs.

Making college — as well as its lifetime career benefits — more accessible means reducing costs. The promise of free college has struck a chord with young voters, but such a plan is vulnerable to the changing priorities of administrations. Other potential solutions include tuition caps and student-borrowing reforms.

Still, free college can work, and not just abroad. More than a dozen U.S. higher education institutions already charge students nothing for tuition. Colleges with free tuition, such as Berea College, typically offer work-study programs and/or rely on private donations.

Students in search of free or cheap education should also consider massive open online courses, online programs, community college, vocational schools, and employer-paid programs.


GI Bill® is a registered trademark of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). More information about education benefits offered by VA is available at the official U.S. government website at https://www.benefits.va.gov/gibill.