Adele Williams often hears her friends from high school talking about their struggles to afford college.
But she can't relate—she doesn’t pay any tuition at all. At the school she attends, Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky, students attend for free in exchange for working.
Her friends at other schools, she says, “are mostly jealous.”
At a time when the cost of attending many private colleges exceeds the national median household income, the idea of paying no tuition at all seems so unrealistic that one higher-education economist refers to it as “la-la land.” But there are a handful of schools—such as Alice Lloyd and others—that don't charge students a penny. Meanwhile, Tennessee will make all of its community colleges free for state residents beginning next year, and Oregon is moving forward with a study considering the same thing.
Now two new proposals go even farther, both aiming to make no-cost college a nationwide standard. A report from the Lumina Foundation recommends that the first two years of public universities and colleges be free, and a new nonprofit called Redeeming America’s Promise has come out with a proposal to give every lower- and middle-class student a full ride.
“The rising millennial generation has been so deeply affected by student debt that they’re driving a conversation about this challenge,” says Morley Winograd, the president of Redeeming America's Promise, who worked as an advisor to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton Administration. She added that “well-meaning but what I would call Band-Aid solutions” aren’t enough to fix the problem.
Existing financial aid was created to help the lowest-income students at a time when middle-class and wealthier families had little trouble paying for college on their own, notes University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist and higher-education policy expert Sara Goldrick-Rab, who co-authored the other proposal. "But the people who are struggling to pay for college today go way beyond poor people," she says. "There’s a need for a universal program.”
The Full Ride Proposal
Redeeming America’s Promise proposes redirecting existing federal and state financial aid and tuition tax breaks to give full tuition scholarships in specified amounts. It says the amount of money the government already spends for those purposes is enough to provide $2,500 per academic year for community college and $8,500 for four-year universities to every student from a family earning $180,000 a year or less.
That would just about cover the entire average advertised full cost of public college and university tuitions for everyone, the organization says.
Under the plan, which is backed by several Republican and Democratic former governors, Cabinet members, and members of Congress, the students could take out loans to cover their living expenses and repay them based on their incomes after graduation.
The scholarships would be limited to two years for an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree to encourage students to graduate on time—which only a fifth of those at four-year institutions currently do and 4% at two-year schools.
Colleges and universities generally wouldn’t be allowed to raise their prices higher than the scholarship amounts, forcing them to control their costs.
The 50% Plan
Goldrick-Rab and her colleague, Nancy Kendall urge in their report that the billions of dollars in federal financial aid money and some state money be redirected to make tuition, fees, books, and supplies free for the first two years of any two- or four-year public university or college and that students be given stipends and jobs to help them pay their living expenses.
Goldrick-Rab and Kendall call this the free two-year college option, or F2CO.
The Reality Check
The Redeeming America’s Promise scholarships would cover the full cost of tuition at public universities and colleges not private ones, the influential lobbies of which are likely to oppose the idea on the grounds that it would divert students from them.
But public institutions might oppose as well, on the basis that the plan would be a form of price control or that they wouldn't be able to handle, at the amount they are allowed to charge, the flood of students projected to descend on them. Tennessee universities opposed making community colleges free in that state, for example, until lawmakers agreed to make some changes in funding for them.
“We had four-year schools that were going, ‘Wow, it’s going to be hard for us to compete with free,’” said Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam.
And the sweeping, dramatic changes suggested in either proposal would face an uphill battle in a divided government that has been challenged to make even marginal policy decisions.
“It’s very difficult to separate the politics from the economics,” said David Breneman, a professor in the economics of education at the University of Virginia.
Breneman pronounced both free-college proposals “not realistic,” especially at four-year institutions (“That’s just La-La Land”), though he said they might stir up a helpful conversation about untangling the way the government helps students pay for college.
“When you look at what a mess we’ve made of student aid and how complicated it’s gotten and the loan craziness, it’s not surprising that people look back at those days when we just had low tuition,” he said.
Even the free-college crusaders are not optimistic about these plans being adopted in the immediate future.
“No way is it happening today,” said Goldrick Rab. "To me the question is, will enough groundwork be laid today that it becomes something groups are working on for the next 10 to 12 years, and that eventually becomes a litmus test for people we elect."
Winograd said more states could make public colleges and universities free sooner than that, mostly without federal involvement. Advocates in some already have proposed it, and many states are watching the free-college experiment in Tennessee, where the $34 million-a-year cost is to be underwritten by a $300 million endowment paid for from lottery proceeds. (In Oregon, the annual cost is estimated at $100 million to $200 million.)
“The political will to do it does exist, not necessarily in Washington, but throughout the country,” Winograd said.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.