Credit: Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education

To rebuild America’s economy in a way that offers everyone an equal chance to get ahead, federal support for free college tuition should be a priority in any economic recovery plan in 2021.

Research shows that the private and public economic benefit of free community college tuition would outweigh the cost. That’s why half of the states in the country already have some form of free college tuition.

The Democratic Party 2020 platform calls for making two years of community college tuition free for all students with a federal/state partnership similar to the Obama administration’s 2015 plan.

It envisions a program as universal and free as K-12 education is today, with all the sustainable benefits such programs (including Social Security and Medicare) enjoy. It also calls for making four years of public college tuition free, again in partnership with states, for students from families making less than $125,000 per year.

The Republican Party didn’t adopt a platform for the 2020 election, deferring to President Trump’s policies, which among other things, stand in opposition to free college. Congressional Republicans, unlike many of their state counterparts, also have not supported free college tuition in the past.

However, it should be noted that the very first state free college tuition program was initiated in 2015 by former Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican. Subsequently, such deep red states with Republican majorities in their state legislature such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas have adopted similar programs.

Establishing free college tuition benefits for more Americans would be the 21st-century equivalent of the Depression-era Works Progress Administration initiative.

That program not only created immediate work for the unemployed, but also offered skills training for nearly 8 million unskilled workers in the 1930s. Just as we did in the 20th century, by laying the foundation for our current system of universal free high school education and rewarding our World War II veterans with free college tuition to help ease their way back into the workforce, the 21st century system of higher education we build must include the opportunity to attend college tuition-free.

California already has taken big steps to make its community college system, the largest in the nation, tuition free by fully funding its California Promise grant program. But community college is not yet free to all students. Tuition costs — just more than $1,500 for a full course load — are waived for low-income students. Colleges don’t have to spend the Promise funds to cover tuition costs for other students so, at many colleges, students still have to pay tuition.

At the state’s four-year universities, about 60% of students at the California State University and the same share of in-state undergraduates at the 10-campus University of California, attend tuition-free as well, as a result of Cal grants, federal Pell grants and other forms of financial aid.

But making the CSU and UC systems tuition-free for even more students will require funding on a scale that only the federal government is capable of supporting, even if the benefit is only available to students from families that makes less than $125,000 a year.

It is estimated that even without this family income limitation, eliminating tuition for four years at all public colleges and universities for all students would cost taxpayers $79 billion a year, according to U.S. Department of Education data. Consider, however, that the federal government spent $91 billion in 2016 on policies that subsidized college attendance. At least some of that could be used to help make public higher education institutions tuition-free in partnership with the states.

Free college tuition programs have proved effective in helping mitigate the system’s current inequities by increasing college enrollment, lowering dependence on student loan debt and improving completion rates, especially among students of color and lower-income students who are often the first in their family to attend college.

In the first year of the TN Promise, community college enrollment in Tennessee increased by 24.7%, causing 4,000 more students to enroll. The percentage of Black students in that state’s community college population increased from 14% to 19% and the proportion of Hispanic students increased from 4% to 5%.

Students who attend community college tuition-free also graduate at higher rates. Tennessee’s first Promise student cohort had a 52.6% success rate compared to only a 38.9% success rate for their non-Promise peers. After two years of free college tuition, Rhode Island’s college-promise program saw its community college graduation rate triple and the graduation rate among students of color increase ninefold.

The impact on student debt is more obvious. Tennessee, for instance, saw its applications for student loans decrease by 17% in the first year of its program, with loan amounts decreasing by 12%. At the same time, Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applications soared, with 40% of the entire nation’s increase in applications originating in that state in the first year of their Promise program.

Wage inequality by education, already dreadful before the pandemic, is getting worse. In May, the unemployment rate among workers without a high school diploma was nearly triple the rate of workers with a bachelor’s degree. No matter what Congress does to provide support to those affected by the pandemic and the ensuing recession, employment prospects for far too many people in our workforce will remain bleak after the pandemic recedes. Today, the fastest growing sectors of the economy are in health care, computers and information technology. To have a real shot at a job in those sectors, workers need a college credential of some form such as an industry-recognized skills certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The surest way to make the proven benefits of higher education available to everyone is to make college tuition-free for low and middle-income students at public colleges, and the federal government should help make that happen.


Morley Winograd is president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition. Max Lubin is CEO of Rise, a student-led nonprofit organization advocating for free college. 

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent diverse viewpoints about California’s public education systems. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Genia Curtsinger 10 months ago10 months ago

    Making community college free to those who meet the admission requirements would help many people. First of all, it would make it easy for students and families, for instance; you go to college and have to pay thousands of dollars to get a college education, but if community college is free it would help so you could be saving money and get a college education for free, with no cost at all. It would make … Read More

    Making community college free to those who meet the admission requirements would help many people. First of all, it would make it easy for students and families, for instance; you go to college and have to pay thousands of dollars to get a college education, but if community college is free it would help so you could be saving money and get a college education for free, with no cost at all. It would make it more affordable to the student and their families.

    Therefore I think people should have free education for those who meet the admission requirements.

  2. nothing 1 year ago1 year ago

    I feel like colleges shouldn’t be completely free, but a lot more affordable for people so everyone can have a chance to have a good college education.

  3. Jaden Wendover 1 year ago1 year ago

    I think all colleges should be free, because why would you pay to learn?

  4. Samantha Cole 1 year ago1 year ago

    I think college should be free because there are a lot of people that want to go to college but they can’t pay for it so they don’t go and end up in jail or working as a waitress or in a convenience store. I know I want to go to college but I can’t because my family doesn’t make enough money to send me to college but my family makes too much for financial aid.

  5. Nick Gurrs 1 year ago1 year ago

    I feel like this subject has a lot of answers, For me personally, I believe tuition and college, in general, should be free because it will help students get out of debt and not have debt, and because it will help people who are struggling in life to get a job and make a living off a job.

  6. NO 2 years ago2 years ago

    I think college tuition should be free. A lot of adults want to go to college and finish their education but can’t partly because they can’t afford to. Some teens need to work at a young age just so they can save money for college which I feel they shouldn’t have to. If people don’t want to go to college then they just can work and go on with their lives.

  7. Not saying my name 2 years ago2 years ago

    I think college tuition should be free because people drop out because they can’t pay the tuition to get into college and then they can’t graduate and live a good life and they won’t get a job because it says they dropped out of school. So it would be harder to get a job and if the tuition wasn’t a thing, people would live an awesome life because of this.

  8. Brisa 2 years ago2 years ago

    I’m not understanding. Are we not agreeing that college should be free, or are we?


    • m 1 year ago1 year ago

      it shouldnt

  9. Trevor Everhart 2 years ago2 years ago

    What do you mean by there is no such thing as free tuition?

  10. Olga Snichernacs 2 years ago2 years ago

    Nice! I enjoyed reading.

  11. Anonymous Cat 2 years ago2 years ago

    Tuition-Free: Free tuition, or sometimes tuition free is a phrase you have heard probably a good number of times. … Therefore, free tuition to put it simply is the opportunity provide to students by select universities around the world to received a degree from their institution without paying any sum of money for the teaching.

  12. Mister B 2 years ago2 years ago

    There is no such thing as tuition free.