Should College Be Free?

Free college — already a reality in some European countries — is an attractive proposition for many Americans, but how close is it to becoming reality?

Updated April 5, 2022

Edited by Brenna Swanston
Should College Be Free?
Opinion & Analysis
Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images

  • Rising tuition costs bury students in debt, raising questions about college's accessibility and value.
  • "Free college" is popular on the campaign trail, but even free community college has so far been left to states.
  • The debate over the feasibility and effectiveness of free college rages on.

When Senator Bernie Sanders promoted his plan for free college back in 2016, his European-style vision of higher education was met with skepticism. Where would the money come from? Would students benefit equitably? And would all of college's costs, including room and board, books, and fees, really go away?

Since then, free college has become a major policy point for Democrats, with many progressive presidential candidates adopting it in 2020. During his own presidential campaign, President Joe Biden put forward a plan that would make community college free for all and four-year college free for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year.

Both of those plans have fallen by the wayside, though a growing number of states are offering free community college to residents.

National free college plans have failed to leave the drawing board, as most rely on states matching federal contributions to cover 100% of tuition costs for in-state students. Paying for these steep tuition rates would require new taxes, which Sanders originally proposed be levied on Wall Street.

Biden's free-college proposal did not include how much the plan would cost or how he would pay for it.

The Debate Over Free College

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted higher education, leading to a downturn in enrollment — particularly at community colleges.

Early on in the pandemic, planned tuition hikes were foregone or even reversed, replaced by discounts that aimed to lure students back. Later on, however, tuition rates increased as colleges weathered inflation.

Between inflation and economic downturn, the college affordability crisis is at a new inflection point, threatening to further widen the opportunity gap between low- and high-income students.

Some say free college is the answer, noting that given the job losses and financial insecurity associated with the pandemic, free college is an "essential part of economic recovery." Critics of government-subsidized tuition argue that the cost to taxpayers outweighs the benefits to low-income students.

3 Reasons Why College Should Be Free

College Creates Better Futures

College is the de facto means of social mobility in the U.S., propelling graduates into middle-class jobs. Higher degrees can unlock an extra million dollars in lifetime earnings. But in order for college to live up to its potential as a great equalizer, all individuals must be able to access higher education.

Bachelor's degrees have replaced high school diplomas as the basic qualification for most jobs. Yet while K-12 education remains free in the U.S., postsecondary education comes at a steep price. Most college students take out loans, and around 10% wind up defaulting.

Existing financial aid, scholarships, and student debt forgiveness programs — such as those that forgive the remaining debt of teachers and other civil servants after a certain number of years — have failed to help millions of students afford their degrees.

Student borrowers who drop out of college are in the worst position of all, bogged down by debt but without degrees to accelerate their ability to pay it off.

Education Boosts the Economy

Critics of free college plans say the current system hasn't impeded American progress. However, proponents say access to free college might spur progress in the United States.

For example, the GI Bill® has connected more than 2 million veterans to free education, many of whom may not have attended college otherwise. This national investment in education paid off with a booming postwar economy.

Almost half of all U.S. states already offer programs that provide tuition-free college to select students. Now, more states could adopt similar plans to help those who have lost their jobs due to COVID-19. For example, Michigan's Futures for Frontliners program, formalized in September 2020, offers free community college to qualifying essential workers.

But such piecemeal state offerings may not be enough. The demand for college-educated workers is growing, and proponents of free college warn that without dramatically expanding access to higher education, the U.S. could be left behind in terms of education.

Free College Could Help Close the Opportunity Gap

The old adage "it takes money to make money" certainly applies to the U.S. higher education system. While federal financial aid and scholarships help students afford college, these resources are often challenging to access and understand — particularly for first-generation college students who need them the most.

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

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

Proponents argue that in any case, universal public systems are designed to help everybody. In a 2015 op-ed for The Washington Post, Sanders proclaimed that no one should be excluded from free college — not when education is "the basis for full economic and political participation, and ... all prosperity."

3 Reasons Why College Should Not Be Free

The Free College Model Is Unproven

Champions of free college say the model will lead to a more educated populace, but there's no clear link between free college and an educated workforce. The three most college-educated countries — South Korea, Japan, and Canada — do not offer free college.

Meanwhile, the Scandinavian countries that pioneered free college rank low in terms of degree attainment. Finland's free public colleges accept just 33% of applicants — on par with some selective private liberal arts colleges in the United States.

Government-subsidized higher education and a high level of college attainment do not always go hand in hand. The U.S. maintains the highest average tuition rates in the world and funnels a smaller percentage of federal funds into higher education than other countries. However, the U.S. also boasts one of the world's highest enrollment rates, with around 20 million students currently enrolled in college.

In fact, free college could end up reducing graduation rates by negatively impacting education quality and driving down enrollment at private institutions, which tend to see higher graduation rates.

Similar issues led England to do away with free college starting in 1998. According to researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research, "The gap in degree attainment between high- and low-income families more than doubled" with free college in England throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

Financial Aid Already Reduces the Cost of College

Despite the shocking sticker price of college, most students don't pay the full amount. In the 2018-19 academic year, 86% of all U.S. college students received financial aid. Aid from the federal government, states, and schools can dramatically reduce the cost of college, sometimes even making it free. Likewise, many low-income students are already eligible for free college through full-ride Pell Grants.

For this reason, economists Sandy Baum and Sarah Turner call free college "neither logical nor sustainable," pointing out that middle-class students would benefit most from the trillion-dollar legislation.

Those who can't afford college can take advantage of the Pell Grant program. And public service loan forgiveness cancels education 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 further subsidize college tuition assume that the U.S. higher education system is working well. In reality, 37% 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. Yet Pell Grants already make community college free for low-income students, and graduation rates at two-year schools are even lower than they are at four-year institutions — only 33%.

According to a 2019 report on college completion by ReUp Education, the top reason students leave college isn't financial hardship but rather the difficulty of juggling life responsibilities. 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 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.

Finally, by shifting the expense of four-year college from students to taxpayers, colleges could face less pressure to innovate their product and make it more affordable.

The Future of Free College in the U.S.

Free college already exists in the U.S., albeit on a small scale. Innovative colleges such as Berea College typically offer work-study programs and rely on private donations. Students in search of free or cheap education can also pursue massive open online courses, online programs, vocational schools, and employer-paid programs.

As for a national free college system? The oft-repeated campaign promise has struck a chord with young people, but don't bust open that college-savings piggy bank just yet.

Although Biden supported free college, only his community college plan made it into budget proposals — and that too was ultimately scrapped. Like large-scale student debt forgiveness, free college faces opposition from Congress.

Free-college options that seem more likely to succeed in Congress include a proposed income cap, through which only families earning above a certain threshold would have to pay tuition. This plan would also only apply to public colleges, with private universities continuing to charge a premium.

Despite the hefty price of higher education, lifetime earnings data indicate that college pays off. The return on investment of a college degree is substantial enough to outpace even the growing cost of tuition. Still, high dropout and student debt default rates reveal a darker side. Making college, and college's many benefits, more equitable would require rates to go down.


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.