Free tuition is one of those ideas that look nice on paper, but in practice, not so much.
Free tuition certainly helps some people, but it is not the most efficient use of money if the goal is to increase access to university education and reduce the debt of poor and middle class families. Currently, the American university system is very progressive. The amount families end up paying is based on their income, which means richer students subsidize poorer ones. A free tuition model is more regressive because it gives richer students a subsidy and places a bigger burden on poor students by not helping them with the cost of living.
Bernie Sanders brought up this idea as one of the central planks of his platform. The fact that it resonated so strongly with millennials shows how deeply this issue effects that generation.
In fact, it’s what many of our colleges and universities used to do. The University of California system offered free tuition at its schools until the 1980s. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year public university was just $243 and many of the best colleges – including the City University of New York – did not charge any tuition at all. The Sanders plan would make tuition free at public colleges and universities throughout the country.