Free college and debt canceling has become a focal point of liberal platforms since it was proposed by Bernie Sanders in 2015. Six candidates in the upcoming 2020 election, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, support free tuition for most college students. Every Democratic candidate supports some variation of making college more affordable, in large part because young voters want it.
In a recent poll done by Harvard Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics, 51% of all Americans between 18 and 29 “support eliminating tuition and fees at public colleges and universities for students from families that make up to $125,000, and making community college tuition-free for all income levels for an estimated cost of $47 billion.” But as a 20-year-old liberal college student, I am part of the 49% that doesn’t support free tuition.
In the summer of 2017, I chose to leave my home state of Michigan to attend the University of Oregon. As a privileged consumer, I was afforded the opportunity to attend a college in another state. With this decision came $30,000 more a year in tuition than had I gone to school in Michigan, and the debt that is a product of that. However, if a tuition free or debt cancelling plan is passed, I would benefit because my family is under the $125,000 yearly income threshold.
There is no question that student debt, which has risen to $1.6 trillion, has become a national crisis. However, free tuition and debt cancellation is nothing more than a political move to appeal to voters that need help the least.
In 2016, the income of bachelor’s degree holders aged 22–27 reached its highest level in over a year with a median of $43,000 a year. High school graduates 22-27 median earnings are $25,000 a year. Those with only a high school diploma also have a 3.5 times higher poverty rate.
Graduating college means that on average, adults ages 22-27, you will make $18,000 more a year. Helping those without the means to access a degree should be the priority over boosting those who have already been afforded the opportunity to attend college.
Many people may argue that free tuition would allow people that couldn’t afford college to now attend. But how is free tuition any different than what is offered now? Aren’t grants and scholarships put in place to help these lower class students? The reason students drop out of college, or never go, isn’t always about tuition.
According to College Board, for the 2018-2019 year, students attending Public Four-Year In-State On-Campus spent $10,230 on tuition and fees, and $11,140 on room and board. Even if low income students were given free tuition, they would still have, on average, over $11,000 in room and board, not including book costs, transportation, and other living costs.
In a study conducted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, they found that “Two-thirds (65%) of the students who dropped out have thought a lot about returning to school. However, many indicated that they might not return even if they got a grant for tuition and books (but not living expenses).”
Don’t get me wrong, I believe that education should be a fundamental right that is given to everyone. However, in a country that ranks 38th in science and 24th in math, where only 68% of public school students graduate high school in Washington, D.C and teachers are only paid on average $58,000, I believe that there are larger issues than giving free tuition and eliminating debt.
Instead of campaigning for complete tuition elimination across the board, we should be attempting to help students that really need it. This can be done by providing two free years of community college, as the Obama administration and presidential candidate Joe Biden has pushed for. Other candidates have proposed debt-free college by increasing aid for students so they don’t have to take out loans.
We should focus on why tuition is so high instead of attempting to pay it all off. Why are schools such as the University of Oregon continuing to raise tuition while building $1 billion dollar science buildings and $200 million track renovations?
Making college more accessible for all doesn’t mean giving money to everyone, but rather, giving more money to those who need it most.