Going into debt isn't always a bad thing. Federal loans give students access to potentially higher-quality schools that, in the long run, could be better for the student than the cheaper alternative.
Being able to borrow for education increases students’ options. Sometimes they choose a higher-cost school as a better investment, because of stronger academic programs and a higher graduation rate, even though it might involve more debt. Without federal loan programs, many students could attend only schools that their families could afford from their current incomes and savings.
Vassar president Catharine Hill argues free tuition is a one-size-fits-all solution to a complex issue. At many schools, wealthy students pay the full price while poorer students get a steep discount. This system makes sure those who are able to pay don't get a free ride, while opening up access to those who traditionally would not have been able to attend. Strengthening this system would do more to reduce inequality and improve access.
If free tuition weren’t an indiscriminate solution, it might be a worthwhile plan. But if our real goal is to improve college access and affordability for students from low- and moderate-income families, as it should be, stronger need-based financial aid policies and well-structured borrowing are a far better strategy.
The biggest reason to make college tuition free is to keep the American dream alive. It's increasingly difficult to find a job that allows for entry into the middle class. Factory and manufacturing work used to play that role, but those sectors have been decimated in recent decades.
In the 1950s and 1960s, it was possible to graduate from high school and move right into a decent-paying job with good benefits. Strong unions offered apprenticeships, and a large manufacturing sector provided opportunities for those without an advanced degree. A couple with a sole breadwinner could buy a home, raise a family and send their kids to college. That was the American dream. Unfortunately, today, for too many Americans, it’s not a possibility.
These days, the path to the middle class requires a college degree. But what stands in the way between your average American and the middle class is a huge and sometimes crushing amount of debt that must be taken on in order to go to college. People are being locked out of the new economy and the middle class simply because they're poor.
An important pathway to the middle class now runs through higher education, but rising costs are making it harder and harder for ordinary Americans to get the education they want and need. In 1978, it was possible to earn enough money to pay for a year of college tuition just by working a summer job that paid minimum wage. Today, it would take a minimum wage worker an entire year to earn enough to cover the annual in-state tuition at a public university. And that’s why so many bright young people don’t go to college, don’t finish or graduate deeply in debt. With $1.3 trillion in student loans, Americans are carrying more student debt than credit card or auto-loan debt. That’s a tragedy for our young people and for our nation.
In my view, education is essential for personal and national well-being. We live in a highly competitive, global economy, and if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated workforce in the world. We won’t achieve that if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college while millions more leave school deeply in debt. We need to ensure that every young person in this country who wishes to go to college can get the education that he or she desires, without going into debt and regardless of his or her family’s income.