The Necessity of Free College in America


As summer winds down, students across the country are feeling the pressure of coming back to school. While high school seniors prepare their college applications, their collegiate counterparts worry about graduating on time and entering the workforce. But the two groups have one large concern in common: money.

Even while college applicants are busy filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, 44 million current college students and alumni owe about $1.3 trillion in student loans. According to Forbes, student loan debt is the highest consumer debt after mortgage debt. At least 2 million of student loan borrowers owe $100,000 or more in student loans.

This is almost exclusively an American problem. Several developed countries like France, Norway, and Germany have avoided or negated massive debt by ensuring free college for all their citizens. Furthermore, those aforementioned nations beat the U.S. in having better school systems and having the most educated populace.

College in America, however, is increasingly becoming unaffordable. The rise in college tuition is “still outpacing inflation and far outpacing family income,” said Ben Miller, senior director of post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, in 2016.

Travis Mitchell from U.S. News reported that in-state public university tuition fees skyrocketed by 296 percent between 1995 and 2015. This was the highest price increase when compared to the rise in private university tuition (179 percent) and out-of-state public university tuition (226 percent). The rise in tuition far exceeds 55.1​ percent, which was the increase in inflation from 1995 to 2015.

Student loan debt is the only debt that one cannot declare bankruptcy on and the government can even garnish the borrower’s wages. About 70 percent of college students will graduate with debt. The average debt of the class of 2016 is $37,172, which exceeds the income of many working millennials.  

A 2016 study conducted by Bankrate found that 62 percent of Americans and 77 percent of millennials support making public colleges and universities tuition-free. By providing free college, the government ensures that quality education is a right and not a commodity. Higher education today is “a market-driven system,” said Ray Franke, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Rising tuition discourages low-income students from applying to college. College enrollment has been declining every year since 2010, citing finances as “the top challenge.” Those poorer students who do not receive higher education will then likely face less economic opportunity in the future.

“A college degree is the surest ticket to the middle class,” President Barack Obama said to Pellissippi State Community College. “It is the key to getting a good job that pays a good income.” America’s current system perpetuates income inequality and makes upward mobility unattainable. Free public college would level the playing field for those who start in a low socioeconomic status.

Progressive members of Congress like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal are pushing free college at the national level. The two lawmakers introduced in April the College for All Act, which would provide free community college for all and four-year public college tuition for those making less than $125,000.

“The College for All Act would renew our compact with our young people…We’re going to piece back together the broken promises of a broken American Dream, and give back hope and opportunity to the middle class and working families across this country.” said Rep. Jayapal in her press release.

The College for All Act would also cut student interest rates in half, expands work-study programs, and bans the federal government from profiting off student loans. The bill currently has 33 cosponsors in the House and 7 cosponsors in the Senate.

Critics of free public college often complain about the cost of providing free college education to all. However, estimates show that free college by itself would cost upwards of $60 billion. The College for All Act would a speculative tax on Wall Street and the federal government would pay 67 percent of the tuition; states would opt into paying the remaining third. Revenue for free college could be generated by redistributing the tax burden onto the top one percent.

As Senator Sanders said, “Higher education in America should be a right for all, not a privilege for the few.”


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