Photo credit: Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for American EducationPhoto credit: Allison Shelley / The Verbatim Agency for American Education

November 2, 2020

To rebuild the American economy so that everyone has equal opportunities to advance, federal support for free tuition should be a priority in any economic recovery plan in 2021.

Research shows that the private and public economic benefits of free community college tuition would outweigh the costs. Because of this, half of the states already have free tuition fees.

The Democratic Party 2020 platform requires all students with a federal-state partnership similar to the Obama administration’s plan for 2015 to receive two years of free community college classes. It envisions a program that is as universal and free as K-12 education today, with all of the sustained benefits such programs (including Social Security and Medicare) enjoy. It is also required that students from families earning less than $ 125,000 a year receive free public tuition fees for four years, again in partnership with states.

The Republican Party has not adopted a platform for the 2020 elections and has opposed President Trump’s policies, which, among other things, are against free college. Congressional Republicans, unlike many of their counterparts, have also not endorsed free tuition in the past. It should be noted, however, that the very first state free college study program was initiated in 2015 by former Republican Bill Haslam of Tennessee. Subsequently, such deep red states with Republican majorities in their state legislature as West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas have passed similar programs.

Establishing free tuition for more Americans would be the 21st century equivalent of the Works Progress Administration’s Depression-era initiative. This program not only created immediate work for the unemployed, but also provided skills development for nearly 8 million unskilled workers in the 1930s. Just like we did in the 20th century by laying the foundation for our current system of universal free high school education and rewarding our WWII veterans with free tuition to ease their way back into the workforce, the 21st century system Education that we build must include the ability to attend college without tuition.

California has already taken great strides to make its community college system, the largest in the country, tuition-free by fully funding its California Promise Grant program. However, Community College is not yet free for all students. Tuition fees – just more than $ 1,500 for a full course charge – are waived for low-income students. Colleges don’t have to spend the Promise funds to cover tuition fees for other students, so many college students still have to pay tuition fees.

At the state’s four-year universities, approximately 60% of students at California State University and the same proportion of students at 10-campus University of California also attend non-class due to Cal scholarships. Federal pell grants and other forms of financial assistance.

However, to make the CSU and UC systems tuition-free to even more students requires funding at a level that only the federal government can support, even if the benefit is only available to students from families that are less than $ 125,000 each Year earn.

It is estimated that abolishing tuition fees for four years at all public colleges and universities for all students would cost taxpayers $ 79 billion a year, according to the US Department of Education. Keep in mind, however, that in 2016 the federal government spent $ 91 billion on measures that subsidized college attendance. At least part of this could help make public higher education institutions tuition free in partnership with states.

Free tuition programs have been shown to be effective in mitigating the current inequalities in the system by increasing college enrollment, reducing reliance on student loan debt, and improving graduation rates, especially among skin color students and lower-income students who are often first in her family are attending college.

In the first year of the TN Promise, enrollment at community colleges in Tennessee increased 24.7%, causing 4,000 more students to enroll. The percentage of black students in this state’s community college community increased from 14% to 19% and the percentage of Hispanic students increased from 4% to 5%.

Students who attend Community College with no tuition fees also graduate at higher rates. Tennessee’s first Promise student cohort had a success rate of 52.6%, compared with a success rate of only 38.9% for its non-promise counterparts. After two years of free college tuition, the Rhode Island College Promise program tripled the rate of community college graduation and color graduation by nine times.

The impact on student debt is more evident. For example, in Tennessee, student loan applications decreased 17% in the first year of the program, while loan amounts decreased 12%. At the same time, the number of Free Student Grant Applications (FAFSA) increased, with 40% of the total country’s applications coming from that state in the first year of their Promise program.

Education wage inequality, which was terrible before the pandemic, is only getting worse. In May, the unemployment rate among workers without a high school diploma was almost three times higher than that among workers with a bachelor’s degree. Regardless of what Congress does to help those affected by the pandemic and the subsequent recession, far too many people in our workforce continue to have poor job prospects after the pandemic has subsided. The fastest growing industries today are healthcare, computers, and information technology. To have a real chance of a job in these sectors, workers will need some form of college education, such as an industry-recognized certificate of qualification or an associate or bachelor’s degree.

The surest way to make the proven benefits of higher education available to all is to make college class free for low and middle income students in public colleges, and the federal government should help make that happen.


Morley Winograd is president of the Free Tuition Campaign. Max Lubin is CEO of Rise, a student-run, nonprofit advocating for a free college.

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