Tuition-free college is a necessary solution to our student debt crisis

On April 21st, Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Pramila Jayapal unveiled the College for All Act, the “most substantial federal investment in higher education in modern American history.” The plan would make community colleges and trade schools tuition-free for all students. In addition public 4-year colleges/universities & public nonprofit minority-serving colleges (i.e. HBCUs) would be tuition-free for families earning less than $125,000 a year. 

In a statement, Bernie Sanders said, “It is absolutely unacceptable that hundreds of thousands of bright young Americans do not get a higher education each year, not because they are unqualified, but because their family does not have enough money. In the 21st century, a free public education system that goes from kindergarten through high school is no longer good enough”

Although the bill will most likely not make it to the president’s desk, it serves as an important reminder about an increasingly worrying problem in America. Furthermore, it offers a candid and urgent solution to such a problem. 

In 2019, outstanding student loan debt amounted to $1.57 trillion. The GDP of the U.S. is about $20 trillion. 54% of students who pursue higher education will take on debt in order to pay. The average debt per borrower is $37,584. In 2020, the Federal Reserve reported that roughly 20% of borrowers were behind on payments, and 30% of borrowers could not keep up with payments after 6 years. 

The problem is only increasing, as college becomes increasingly more important. The Department of Education found that ⅔ of job openings in 2020 required a college degree or more. College graduates earn 66% more income than non-graduates. 

Fundamentally, the debt crisis is an equity issue. Black students borrow more on average than white students. White students were able to pay back 53% of their loan 12 years after graduation. In stark contrast black students actually owed more — about 14% — than their original balance. 

Student debt has evolved into a full-blown crisis. In order to solve a large problem, we need larger solutions, such as tuition-free college. 

However, within the modern era, proposals to increase access to higher education through tuition-free programs have been heavily criticized. Last December, the notion of tuition-free college was blasted as a “socialist takeover of higher education” by former Secretary of Education Betsy Devos. In 2016, the New York Post called it “the gateway drug to socialism.” 

The notion of American-exceptionalism, and the “do-it-yourself” attitude has led many here to turn a blind eye to the international efforts to open up college. The European Union has some of the most robust virtually-free colleges in the world. Germany, France, Finland, Denmark, and Norway are all countries who have tuition-free higher education programs

Critics also seem to overlook America’s own past. During the post WW2-era, the U.S. ranked 1st in college graduates; the common denominator? 7.8 million WW2 vets and their dependents were allowed a tuition-free higher education; their economic return over the next 35 years was $6.50 per every dollar spent

“A generation ago, there was a system that helped you not take on the risk yourself to pay for college education, but society took on the risk for you by making tuition cheap and allowing you to benefit from that experience and then pay it back in the form of higher tax revenue. We’ve shifted the risk from society directly to the student,” says David Deming, public policy professor at Harvard. 

Unfortunately, the current mindset of many in the country is one that treats societal problems as fundamentally individualistic ills. Higher education, as it remains, is still the financial gatekeeper for success in America.

We need a long-term answer to a structural problem. Looking at it from a big-picture perspective, our end goal should be reaching open access to higher education and lower costs. The first step in the process is implementing tuition-free collegiate programs. The only tradeoff would be a better educated and free population.

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