Even as many other countries follow the US model of shifting the financial burden of higher education to students and their families, a movement is gathering steam in the US that calls for a move in the opposite direction: free university study.
One state has already approved fee-free study for students at its community colleges offering two-year associate degrees, and another is considering it. A report for the Lumina Foundation, a private grant-awarding body focused on widening access, has urged the redirection of all government financial aid into two years of free tuition nationwide, and a new organisation led by an ex-aide to former vice-president Al Gore is calling for free tuition at all public universities for up to four years.
“Free is common sense, free is understandable, and free is what we’ve tried to do every single time we’ve tried to make it really possible to advance the country’s educational level,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist and educational policy expert. She is co-author of the Lumina report that urges giving students from families with an annual income of up to $160,000 (£93,000) two free years of higher education – including books and supplies – just as they now get free primary and secondary schooling.
The second of the two major new proposals comes from a bipartisan national organisation called Redeeming America’s Promise, run by former Gore adviser Morley Winograd. It calls instead for four free years of public university tuition for students from families with annual incomes of $180,000 or less.
Both plans would be paid for by redirecting existing federal and some state financial aid and eliminating the need for most of the additional billions in tax credits given to families that now pay university tuition fees. Neither calls for any additional spending.
Redeeming America’s Promise would also make loans available to students to cover their living expenses, with repayment tied to their incomes after graduation.
‘New’ idea has precedents
Free tuition is not new to US higher education. Study at the University of California system’s institutions was free to that state’s top entering students until tuition fees were imposed in the 1970s by Ronald Reagan, the governor at the time. The City University of New York system also once offered free higher education. A number of its graduates, with many immigrants among them, subsequently rose to the highest levels of power and achievement.
There are still some US universities where tuition is free. The academies of the US navy, air force, Coast Guard and merchant marine, for instance, levy no tuition fees for students who serve a military term. At a handful of smaller institutions, students work in exchange for all or part of their tuition. And even CUNY still waives tuition for high-achieving students accepted to its honours college.
But cuts in government funding have been followed by rising tuition fees at almost every public university, and the cost of attending private institutions has also multiplied. Meanwhile, existing federal financial aid to students is widely seen as poorly targeted, and half of federal tuition tax credits go not to the poorest Americans but rather to the wealthiest one-fifth.
Redeeming America’s Promise would generally bar public universities from increasing their price beyond a set amount that the government would pay per student. That amount would begin at what the organisation estimates is now the national average “sticker price” of tuition fees.
“What we’re saying is, put a stake in the ground and let’s try to live within our means,” Mr Winograd said. He added that the idea is so financially realistic that “it could be done tomorrow”, and one independent thinktank has confirmed this.
But he conceded that it will take much longer to navigate the political waters, “given the stalemates and political divides in Washington”.
Powerful private non-profit universities also are likely to oppose free tuition, which would cost them students and funding. And even public universities, which are run by the states, may object to the notion advanced by Redeeming America’s Promise of using the federal government’s financial aid programme to force them to control their costs.
Those obstacles do not prevent individual states from making university tuition free, however, and one is now making the goal a reality. Tennessee, which will make its community colleges free for state residents beginning next year, is paying for the initiative with proceeds from its lottery. Oregon has approved a study to consider doing the same thing.
That is the kind of dramatic gesture that Dr Goldrick-Rab said was necessary to stop university costs from continuing to rise and fuelling massive student debt, especially among the poor.
“The impact is much greater with a sudden, sharp change,” she said. “The subsidising of everyone with a universal policy pays off the most for poor people.
“So what if we subsidise a few upper middle-class families, if what it means is that we can say to the country that there is no sticker shock any more – the price is zero.”
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