The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Adele Williams hears from a lot of her friends from high school about their struggles to afford the cost of college.

“I have a best friend who goes to a public university, and she’s in quite a lot of debt,” said Williams. Higher and higher tuition, she said, “is just a scary thought for people to face.”

Except for her. Williams doesn’t pay any tuition at all. She goes to Alice Lloyd College in Kentucky, where students attend for free in exchange for working.

Her friends at other schools, she said, “are mostly jealous.”

Free college
Adele Williams on the hills above Alice Lloyd College, where she and her classmates pay no tuition.

Now the idea of college for free for almost everyone has unexpectedly leapt to the top of the conversation about the ever-rising cost of tuition.

Tennessee will make its community colleges free beginning next year. Oregon is moving forward with a study considering the idea.

A new report recommends that the first two years of public universities and colleges be free nationwide, and a nonprofit called Redeeming America’s Promise goes even further with a proposal to give every lower- and middle-class student a scholarship to cover the full cost of college.

“The rising millennial generation has been so deeply affected by student debt that they’re driving a conversation about this challenge,” said Morley Winograd, president of Redeeming America’s Promise, who said “well-meaning but what I would call Band-Aid solutions” aren’t enough to fix the problem.

The group led by Winograd, who was an advisor to former Vice President Al Gore and now is a senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, proposes redirecting existing federal and state financial aid and tuition tax breaks to give full tuition scholarships in specified amounts—$2,500 per academic year for community college and $8,500 for four-year universities—to every student from a family earning $180,000 a year or less.

That would come in just under the current average advertised full cost of public college and university tuitions, as calculated by the College Board.

The scholarships would be limited to two years for an associate’s degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree, encouraging students to graduate on time, which only a fifth of them do today at four-year institutions and 4 percent at two-year schools. Colleges and universities generally wouldn’t be allowed to raise their prices higher than the scholarship amounts, forcing them to control their costs.

Under the plan, which is backed by several Republican and Democratic former governors, Cabinet members, and congressmen, the students could take out loans to cover their living expenses, and repay them based on their incomes after graduation.

It’s an approach that’s also being pushed by University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist and higher-education policy expert Sara Goldrick-Rab and a colleague, Nancy Kendall, who urge in a new report that the billions of dollars in existing federal financial aid and some state money be redirected to make tuition, fees, books, and supplies free for the first two years of any two- or four-year public university or college and that students be given stipends and jobs to help them pay their living expenses.

Goldrick-Rab and Kendall call this the free two-year college option, or F2CO.

Existing financial aid was created to help the lowest-income students, Goldrick-Rab said, at a time when middle-class and wealthier families had little trouble paying for college on their own. But tuition has become unaffordable even for them, she said, making the existing system all but obsolete.

“The people who are struggling to pay for college today go way beyond poor people,” Goldrick-Rab said. “There’s a need for a universal program.”

Don’t blow the college fund on a trip to Vegas yet, however.

The Redeeming America’s Promise scholarships would cover the full cost of tuition at public universities and colleges, not private ones, which are likely to oppose the idea. So might public institutions, on the basis that the plan would be a form of price control, or that they can’t handle, at the amount they are allowed to charge, the flood of students projected to descend on them. And such a sweeping and dramatic change would face an uphill battle in a divided government that has proven incapable of making even marginal policy decisions.

“It’s very difficult to separate the politics from the economics,” said David Breneman, a professor in the economics of education at the University of Virginia.

Breneman pronounced the free-college proposals “not realistic,” especially at four-year institutions (“That’s just La-La Land”), though he said they might stir up a helpful conversation about untangling the way the government helps students pay for college.

“When you look at what a mess we’ve made of student aid and how complicated it’s gotten and the loan craziness, it’s not surprising that people look back at those days when we just had low tuition,” he said.

Free-college crusaders counsel patience.

“No way is it happening today. To me the question is, will enough groundwork be laid today that it becomes something groups are working on for the next 10 to 12 years, and that eventually becomes a litmus test for people we elect,” said Goldrick Rab.

Winograd said more states could make public colleges and universities free sooner than that, mostly without federal involvement. Advocates in some already have proposed it, and many states are watching the free-college experiment in Tennessee, whose $34 million-a-year-cost is to be underwritten by a $300 million endowment paid for from lottery proceeds. (In Oregon, whose legislature has approved a study of making community college free, the annual cost is estimated at $100 million to $200 million.) “The political will to do it does exist, not necessarily in Washington, but throughout the country,” Winograd said.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. I have worked on this issue for decades and am thrilled that we’re finally gaining momentum for a robust national conversation! I look forward to doing all that I can to make the case that investing in higher education as a nation (local taxpayers, states and the feds) will yield a more prosperous nation in the long run. Thank you for writing this piece!

  2. Are the 4 year public universities and the 2 year community colleges going to be able to enroll all of the students in the under $180,000 group? How would they be able to expand their student numbers to acomodate everyone?

    Would this mean that there would be no admission requirements for 4 year public universities? So U of MD, U of VA, UNC… all very difficult to gain admission as 1st year freshman (can transfer into U of MD after attending any MD community college with a 2.0 ) would now accept everyone who enrolls?

    It is amazing to me how short sighted we can be in education. Every idea that sounds good we latch onto as if it is going to save us all. It often harms those it was intended to help and takes money away from real solutions that would help them.

    The road to he** is paved with good intentions? or is it simply paved with quick solutions that are not fully debated or scrutinized for actual benefits to the parties that need the benefits the most.

    Case in point? I’m not sure if this is true, but I’ve heard that in the 1930’s when the Federal Minimum Wage was first enacted, it was rushed into being by Northern Senators and Congressman so that good paying jobs in the North would not be moved by companies to African American men in the South who were willing to work for a lower wage. By creating the minimum wage, the Southern men could remain unemployed and would not threaten the wages and jobs in the North.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *