With college costs skyrocketing, a growing group of policymakers is coalescing behind an audacious plan: Make college free for anyone who can't pay.
It may sound impossible in an era of dwindling education budgets, but proposals in Michigan and California claim it can be done through tax credits or creative repayment setups. If either plan becomes reality, it could show a way out of the tuition crisis that's affected most public and many private universities.
The most elite private universities have long offered generous scholarships to low- and middle-income students out of their teeming endowments, with some—like Harvard and Princeton—promising a free ride without student loans to anyone whose parents don't earn enough to pay. But for the vast majority of college-bound students, that's not an option—yet. Since taking office, President Barack Obama has modestly expanded federal Pell Grants and loan accessibility. But in his State of the Union address this year, Obama acknowledged those reforms are not enough to keep education affordable. "Colleges and universities have to do their part to keep costs down," he said.
Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, says the cost-free tuition vision is in its earliest days, but he's excited for the possibility. "I've been a hawk on the tuition issue and have been opposed to tuition hikes," he says. "I haven't heard the cost-free position articulated with the exception of the demonstrations for the 99 percent. But I certainly wouldn't oppose making college free."
In Michigan, Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, whose district includes Michigan State University, introduced the "Michigan 2020 Plan," which would offer free or near-free tuition to state universities or community colleges for any Michigan high school graduate. The bill would award about $9,500—the median cost at a public university in the state—to all students who complete kindergarten through high school in Michigan public schools. Students who moved to the state partway through their academic careers or transferred from private schools would earn a portion of that sum. Advocates say the entire program could be funded by closing tax loopholes with no effect on individual taxpayers.
The program is modeled on the Kalamazoo Promise, which pays between 65 and 100 percent of the cost of college tuition to high school graduates in Kalamazoo. So far, the program has paid for four-year scholarships at 43 universities across the state.
Don Heller, dean of Michigan State University's College of Education, says he supports freeing students of financial distress, but he opposes the plan as currently proposed because all students would be eligible, regardless of family income. "It makes little sense for scarce state resources to be used to subsidize the college attendance of students whose families have sufficient resources to pay for it themselves," he says.
California has been the most visible hotbed of student activism protesting tuition hikes and cuts to aid, so it's fitting that another proposal for tuition-free college education comes from students in the University of California system. The Fix UC plan vows to eliminate "egregious increases in tuition costs" by allowing students to repay the cost of tuition after they have graduated in increments determined by their salaries after graduation.
The UC Student Investment Plan would make it possible for students to attend UC schools without paying any upfront costs by charging alumni a fixed 5 percent of their salaries for 20 years after graduation. Working in-state would earn a discount, as would taking a public sector job. Tuition payments from older generations would cover the costs of the younger ones. And because payments would be based on salary, no UC graduate would confront costs she could not afford.
Gary Orfield, a professor of education at University of California, Los Angeles, says Fix UC offers a promising possibility. "I do favor an option for students to pay for college by agreeing to pay a percent of future earnings," he says, adding that the campaign should consider special circumstances "to exempt some former students and families with very low incomes and, perhaps, put some ceiling on payments."
And if Fix UC isn't the answer, he says, the state has an obligation to find another one. It's unconscionable that "someone who is in the highest tenth of family income now has 10 times the chance of finishing college as someone in the lowest tenth," he says.
It remains to be seen whether new-wave approaches like Michigan 2012 and Fix UC can work, and plenty of skeptics remain. Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, warns against seeing those proposals as a panacea to systemic problems with education budgets. "By and large these plans go nowhere (with a few narrow exceptions, like the service academies, but there the students pledge military service)," he says.
Orfield agrees the dream of free college for all is a long way off."It does now exist, in effect, at some elite private and public universities and colleges for low-income students," he says. "[But] it would take a vast amount of funding to do this for middle-income students and families."