Why Universal College Tuition Programs are Really, Very, Good Ideas

A few decades ago, a college degree was a symbol of a sustained commitment to higher education, one that set you apart from the crowd on the job market and gave you a leg up against your non-college educated peers. However, in today’s increasingly competitive, increasingly globalized economy, a college education has become a prerequisite for many careers. The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce predicts that by next year, 65% of all American jobs will require at least a two-year associate’s degree, if not a four-year bachelor’s degree. Although many college graduates end up pursuing careers completely unrelated to their majors, some proof of post-high school education is an absolute necessity to get your foot in the door. Many high schoolers and their families are acutely aware of this educational imperative, and they’re willing to go to great lengths to secure a diploma that promises them a successful career, financial stability, and opportunities that non-college graduates will never have. 

Of course, this all-important diploma comes at a great cost. About 70% of all college graduates in the United States leave their colleges or universities with a significant amount of student debt. As of 2018, the total amount of student loan debt owed by American college graduates was almost $1.5 trillion. Averaged out among individual college grads, this means that the average college student graduates owing $37,172. This figure is up over $17,000 from the average individual student loan debt in 2005. Monthly student loan payments have increased accordingly, with the average monthly student loan payment reaching about $400 in 2016, almost double the average monthly student loan payment from 2005. As a consequence, economists expect the retirement age of current college students and recent college graduates to skyrocket. Currently, the social security retirement age in the United States falls between 65 years old and 66.5 years old, depending on a person’s specific birth year. New studies predict that the average college graduate of the Class of 2015 will have to defer their retirement until the age of 75 because of their student loan debt. As time goes by, the average amount of student debt that future college graduates accrue will likely increase. If current trends are anything to go by, it already has. In 1987, the average annual tuition cost of a public four-year institution was just $3,190 per year, adjusted for inflation. Thirty years later, that cost has tripled, reaching $9,970 per year. The average annual tuition for a private, nonprofit four-year institution in 1987 was $15,160. Now, it’s reached $34,470 per year. With each coming year, it becomes increasingly expensive to attend college, and the financial burden placed on college students and their families grows increasingly heavier. 

Students from low-income backgrounds are consistently at a distinct disadvantage throughout their college years. Although financial aid is available through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), as well as work-study programs, publicly and privately-funded scholarships, and grants, these avenues are oftentimes still not enough to cover the exorbitant costs of tuition, room and board, and textbooks. Low-income students, defined by a total family annual income of less than $40,000 per year, often find themselves having to work additional part-time jobs in order to pay their tuition, and every hour spent taking classes, studying, and doing homework is an hour that could have been spent making money. These financial stresses can become a distraction from academics, leading to poorer performance in classes and defeating the purpose of attending college in the first place. Additionally, many low-income students opt to live at home and commute to campus, forgoing the costs of dorms and meal plans. However, although commuting to college can save thousands of dollars per year, it can also have adverse effects on a student’s overall college experience. Much of the value of college doesn’t exclusively come from the things a student learns in class — extracurricular clubs, internships, research programs, and social life are often centered around the college campus itself. These opportunities, which are crucial for networking, personal development, and resume-building, are more difficult to attain for commuter students. 

Colleges (rightly) claim that a degree is the key to upward financial mobility, a tantalizing prospect for anyone, but especially for low-income students. Ironically, the process of surviving and thriving in college is also the most difficult for those very same low-income students that universities purport to help. Of course, race also matters a great deal in the discussion around low-income students. Black, Hispanic, and Native American households are the most likely to classify as low-income, which means that their children are disproportionally affected by the struggles that befall low-income students in the United States. These students are placed in an impossible bind — without a college degree, their ability to land a solid career and obtain financial stability is significantly diminished. However, obtaining a college degree almost guarantees burdening themselves with tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt, which will likely take upwards of two decades to pay off. This conundrum is the birthplace of the fight for universal college tuition. It’s crucial that we level the playing field, allowing all students, regardless of their race or economic status, to enjoy the full spectrum of opportunities that college can offer. A program of universal college tuition makes college accessible for all students, allowing them to prove themselves based on their academic prowess, intelligence, curiosity, and creativity, not their families’ gross annual income. 

Although they may sound like a utopian pipe dream, universal college tuition programs are already being implemented in the United States and abroad. As of 2018, 17 states offer promise programs, which offer tuition-free scholarships to public college programs for qualifying low-income students. Of these 17 states, New York is the only one to offer tuition-free scholarships for both community colleges and participating public four-year universities. Outside of the United States, countries like Norway, Finland, Germany, Slovenia, Mexico, and Brazil offer free tuition in their public universities, making a good education infinitely more accessible for all students. Although the sheer geographic size of the United States makes universal free tuition at all public universities a daunting challenge, we can still learn from these international universal tuition programs. If we can’t make higher education free, we should at least endeavor to make it much more accessible. 

Aside from offering personal growth opportunities to low-income students, investing in educational accessibility would also do the entire nation good. A 2015 study conducted at the University of Munich in Germany asserts that education may be the single biggest factor in a nation’s economic growth. When more people receive a good education, unemployment rates drop and income levels rise. Over generations, this causal relationship becomes bidirectional. Better-educated people are able to land better jobs with better pay, and are thus able to better educate their children, setting off a feedback loop of educational prowess and economic prosperity. In countries like China and Bangladesh, this feedback loop has caused a marked increase in GDP per capita, proving that improvements in education are crucial for nationwide economic growth. Although universal tuition might seem like a hefty investment, it absolutely will pay off.

At its heart, universal college tuition isn’t just about sending more students to college. A universal college tuition program helps mitigate systemic inequalities of class and race, allowing low-income students from all over the country to better their economic situation for generations to come. It ensures that bright, talented students aren’t at a disadvantage because of their families’ finances, and leads to greater diversity of thought and experience in business, tech, academia, and any other major industry you could possibly think of. At a national level, universal college tuition increases employment rates and income levels. When implemented correctly, it can even lift an entire nation’s GDP per capita. If we want to ensure our country’s continued economic prosperity, allowing people of all backgrounds to partake in the academic and career opportunities out there, investing in universal college tuition is an absolute must.