Free college tuition: Research, thoughts, and philosophy

ABOVE: From Michael Fleshman on Flickr

Written by Jeff Epstein, Editor of Citizens’ Media TV.
(Originally privately written for NJ-3 Democratic candidate Andy Kim in May of 2017)

Free tuition is only for those that work hard and earn their way into college. Students must have satisfactory grades and test scores, and they must apply and be accepted by the university (or college). It is a myth that “anyone” can just walk into a university and take classes because they happen to be free.

Free tuition is also a great equalizer among classes, races, and cultures. As long as you do indeed earn your way in, you no longer have to worry about economic discrimination or the circumstances of your birth as being a barrier to upward economic mobility. Conversely, not providing free tuition is a tool used to further disadvantage the poor and minorities, and unfairly advantage the wealthy and powerful.

According to Bernie Sanders:

In Finland, Denmark, Ireland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Mexico, public colleges and universities remain tuition-free. They’re free throughout Germany, too, and not just for Germans or Europeans but for international citizens as well. That’s why every year, more than 4,600 students leave the United States and enroll in German universities. For a token fee of about $200 per year, an American can earn a degree in math or engineering from one of the premier universities in Europe.

From page 13 in the book Making Public Colleges Tuition Free A BRIEFING BOOK FOR STATE LEADERS (MCTF):

Since 1973, according to Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) data, “average inflation-adjusted public college tuition has increased by 274 percent while median household income has grown by only 7 percent…

And those that dare pay for college are left with crushing debt (MCTF, page 14):

“About seven in 10 (69%) college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit colleges in 2014 had student loan debt,” according to a report by the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS). “These borrowers owed an average of $28,950.” From 2004 to 2014, average student debt rose by 56% from $18,550 to $28,950.

(I personally had $50,000, and have numerous friends with well over $100,000.)

There is more student debt in the United States than either auto loans or credit card debt.

Bernie Sanders’ free tuition bills

His easy-to-read and concise summary on the subject, on his presidential campaign website.

Bernie Sanders’ 2017 College for All bill does not assist those who make more than $125,000 a year. His original 2015 version, as trumpeted during his campaign, has no limit on income.

The 2017 bill “would also cut student loan interest rates in half…and triple funding for the Federal Work-Study program.”

Cost of the free tuition bills

Sanders’ less restrictive 2015 bill has a cost of approximately $75 billion per year. It is paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation, which, conservatively, raises about $150 billion a year.


2015 Gallup poll:

Free Pre-K & childcare:

  • Overall: 59% of Americans
  • 81% Democrats, 36% Republicans
  • 69% of those making less than $36,000 want it.
  • 70% of those 18 to 34 years want it.

Free college tuition:

  • Overall: 47% of Americans
  • 67% Democrats, 23% Republicans
  • 61% of those making less than $36,000 want it.
  • 63% of those 18 to 34 years want it.

In a 2016 CNBC poll, support for free college increased to 62% of Americans overall, and to 77% of those aged 18 to 29. (Just over half of people 50 and older want it…easy to say for those who will likely never take advantage it…)

In a 2017 poll (conducted after November’s election, by Penn Schoen Berland (PSB) on behalf of the Campaign for Free College Tuition (CFCT)), this increased again to 73% of Americans overall, 89% of democrats, and even 56% of Republicans.

Negative case study: New York’s “free tuition” program has suffocating restrictions

(Aside from New York, other tuition-free state programs are described in the MCTF book).

The just passed New York “free tuition” program is called the Excelsior Scholarship. It saves a family whose income is $100,000 or less (increasing to $125,000 by 2019) about 30% on tuition costs. Even ideally, a student must be prepared to pay up to seventy percent. But there are so many restrictions on the program, it will only result in benefits to a small slice of middle-income students, and an even smaller amount of low-income students.

First, it requires that students go full-time, without exception, until their degree is earned and either two or four years. According to the New York Times, “The state’s college students, increasingly, are not like that. Many of them attend part time and take extra years to earn their degrees, so Excelsior will not help them.”

It is also “a last dollar” program that provides “up to $5,500 [a semester] from the Excelsior Scholarship, minus any amounts received for TAP, Pell or other scholarships.” According to the Times, this means that “its benefit to the poorest students would be limited…. What those students most need help with — living expenses, books and fees — will not be covered by Excelsior….”

[L]ow-income students often must interrupt their studies to work. At the state’s community colleges, more than 90 percent of students would not qualify for free tuition based on those requirements. Even at its four-year colleges, 60 percent would be ineligible.


After graduation, scholarship recipients must live and work in New York for as many years as they received a tuition award. If they break that commitment, the tuition grant becomes a loan that must be repaid.

This, according to a professor of Higher Education Policy & Sociology at Temple University, is unreasonable:

[I]f they continue to live in New York but work in one of its 5 border states, they will suddenly be saddled with debt…. [I]f they go off and serve, they must repay debt…. People who need to leave New York to care for a family member will also be smacked with debt.

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