Leaders of the US “free college” movement are hoping to ride a wave of grassroots reforms to put the issue at the heart of the national debate ahead of the next presidential vote.
With total student debt in the US totalling $1.5 trillion (£1.2 trillion), the large Democratic field of potential challengers to Donald Trump in 2020 is full of leading advocates of reducing or abolishing university fees – including former vice-president Joe Biden, 2016 contender Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke.
Experts remain sceptical about whether a nationwide abolition of fees in the US would be realistic: the cost – tens of billions of dollars a year – seems eye-wateringly high at a time of growing budget deficits.
US voters are generally supportive of education, said Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation for Education, “but I’m not sure that free college is really the sort of ‘winning’ issue”.
Mark Becker, president of Georgia State University, agreed. “It is fundamentally within the American psyche that something that is broken is ‘free’,” he said.
What does seem popular and growing, however, may accomplish a lot of what “free college” advocates are actually seeking. Nearly half of US states and several hundred local governments have enacted “promise”-style programmes that offer free or debt-free tuition to some subset of lower-income students for at least a portion of their college years.
This movement was set off by the creation in 2015 of the Tennessee Promise programme, which uses profits from a state lottery to cover the costs beyond other government aid for low-income students for two years at a community or technical college.
Governments, colleges and donors are working on a series of other initiatives to help needy students without getting rid of tuition fees.
Agencies led by the Census Bureau are sharing employment records with states to help them track the career paths of their graduates, allowing them to direct financial aid toward field-specific programmes within colleges that appear most effective in career-related training.
Universities have long fought such data disclosures “to the death”, said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, but that now appears to be a losing battle. “The death has come and gone,” Professor Carnevale said.
Universities are also increasingly focusing on vocational-style programmes, which could be part of the broader effort to give all students the education that best fits them at an affordable price, said Martha Kanter, under-secretary of state of education in the Obama administration, who is now executive director of the College Promise Campaign.
Federal support from a potential president who backed “free college” could help, she said, but the need was so great that success will require wide-scale coordination among governments, colleges, donors and employers.
“Free college” may not be realistic, Dr Kanter said, but the terminology was still valuable as a way of helping prospective students and their families – many of whom couldn’t even conceive of going to college – consider it realistic.
“‘Free’ is a term that draws people in, who don’t think things are possible,” she said.