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Just when we all thought the free college movement was dead in the water, it’s back – and potentially in a big way
The prospect of tuition-free or debt-free public college on the federal level was looking promising on the presidential campaign trail, with both Democratic candidates adopting some form of the idea into their platforms. But the initiative hit a major stumbling block in November when Republicans won both the presidency and the majority in Congress.
For free college proponents, that means it’s back to the drawing board – which, in this case, means back to the states, where in recent years the idea of free college or reduced college costs got its start. Up until the 1970s or so, many public state- and city-college systems offered no-tuition, or very affordable, programs.
Today, a great deal of states have cut back on their investment in higher education, but could the tide be turning? Over at the Student Loan Ranger blog for U.S. News and World Report, we recently wrote about several “promise” scholarship programs at the state and municipal level that help academically qualified students, often low- or middle-income, better afford a college education at a public institution.
These programs, ranging from rural states to small towns to big cities, are helping regions increase college access and completion, create a college-going culture, and reduce the burden of student debt. In recent weeks, both New York and Rhode Island announced their own promise-type programs, which could give the free college agenda a huge push forward – especially if the high profile Empire State adopts the plan.
The free college initiative does have its critics, however. Conservatives argue, as the nominee for U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently stated, that “nothing in life is truly free,” and taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill. That builds on decades of conservative thought that the attainment of college is actually a private good benefitting the individual student rather than a public good benefitting society (a sentiment we’ve argued against in the past).
Liberals, on the other hand, are skeptical that certain free tuition plans will work as intended, or they worry that the funding could be better targeted to low-income students. The higher education community itself professes some doubts about unintended consequences, with private higher education institutions worried about enrollment drops if students are incented to pursue public options, and public institutions concerned about meeting expanded demand without a reduction in program quality.
There’s validity to many of these arguments and certainly the devil’s in the details. But ultimately, it’s vitally important that the free college effort move forward, whether it’s through state or municipal government, corporate philanthropy or some combination thereof.
Our nation is at a crossroads and higher education is the clear dividing line. Studies have shown that individuals with some postsecondary education under their belt fare far better in the job market than those with only a high school degree.
At the same time, higher education is under fire like never before. The explosion in student debt has left many Americans questioning if college is worth it. Meanwhile, the recent election seems to have unveiled resentment by those non-collegegoers who feel left behind by an economy increasingly dependent on a college-educated workforce.
That’s why it’s never been more important to get the message out that college is affordable and attainable. The fact is, regardless of higher education’s naysayers, a college educated citizenry is the only way forward for our nation in the global economy of the 21st century and beyond. Simply put, more Americans must pursue some form of postsecondary education.
At times like these, symbolism must reign supreme – details be damned. And often, the best symbols are simple. So if the best way to spread the word to the masses that college is possible, is to scream “free college” from the rooftops, let’s do so, by all means.
Yes, we’ll have to work through all the specifics, and many policy tweaks will need to be made as the programs progress. But you have to start somewhere. Right now, with no movement possible on the federal level, it’s up to the states to create a tidal wave of support for free college in any form. In the words of Princess Leia and the recently dearly departed Carrie Fisher: States, “you’re our only hope.”