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In Support of Free Community College and Public University

On March 11, President Biden proposed free community college and expanded Pell Grant funding as a part of his fiscal year 2025 budget presentation, which would allocate $82.4 billion to the U.S. Department of Education, a $3.1 billion increase from last year’s budget. The proposed budget further cemented Biden’s commitment to reforming education (as of May 21, the administration has forgiven $167 billion student debt for 4.75 million Americans), but is also part of a broader recognition of American higher education’s current shortcomings. Studies show average college costs rising dramatically more than average income, and 70% of students with bachelor’s degrees have education debt. In fact, the cost of college has pushed many young adults to opt out of obtaining a college degree.

To address these obstacles, American policymakers should seriously consider removing tuition costs from community colleges and public universities, making college more accessible and alleviating the burden on American students and graduates. 

Higher education should be viewed as a public good, and increasing educational access is an effective investment for American citizens. Research finds that college graduate are half as likely to face unemployment than their peers with only a high school degree. With the employment landscape changing due to rapid technological advancement and the COVID-19 pandemic, the skills and resources college provides to students can create a more sustainable workforce. Generally, college degrees are linked with various other positive outcomes, including increased civic engagement, decreased likelihood of drug addiction and better self-reported health

Making college free has been proven to bring these benefits to more Americans. Knoxville, Tennessee, which began offering tuition-free community college or technical school in 2008, serves as evidence of this. Participants in Knoxville’s program who graduated high school in 2009, 2010 and 2011 earned an average of 13% more than their classmates who did not participate.

Another study looking at the impact of U.S. federal aid for Texas public college students found that even cheaper college increases first-time degree completion, and significantly increases later earnings. The study found that based on earnings alone, the government expenditure on aid pays for itself within 10 years. Removing financial barriers to college has also proven to boost enrollment for black and Hispanic students, who have historically been less likely to enroll in or obtain a college degree. Some research has also found that students who have access to tuition-free college reported working harder in high school as a result of the availability of higher education.

Free community colleges and public universities are not the ultimate means for higher education reform. Degree attainment is still disproportionately difficult for underprivileged students, who often experience additional stressors that hinder academic achievement, and come from less privileged high school backgrounds. The fear that free tuition and the resulting increase in enrollment would decrease educational quality is also well-founded.

We should keep these issues in mind, and address them in the technicalities of free college policy implementation, using caveats such as funding for mentorship initiatives (as Biden presented in his budget proposal) retaining Pell Grant and other need-based federal aid for additional education-related expenses beyond tuition, and other financial supports to improve the efficacy of such an initiative. Despite the difficulties, providing free higher education is vital to improving our economy, our democracy and ultimately, our people.

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual author.

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1 Comment

Connor Chung
Connor Chung
5 days ago

fantastic article, Ella. I think community college is a great resource for young people who are looking for a financially viable route to a higher education. I attneded a community college myself and found that the class sizes were smaller than a four-year university, providing more student-teacher interaction, and the cost was significantly cheaper. It's a great way to get a feel for what fields you might be interested as well. Given that classes aren't prohibitively expensivie in comparison with their four-year counterparts, it permits you to take a variety of electives to see what you may or may not be interested in.

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