Debt-free College: Is It Possible?

Higher Education

By Lauren Weddell

If you’ve been watching or listening to any type of political campaign coverage recently, you’ve probably heard various positions on the cost of a college education and the changes that are needed.  While views of candidates and commentators differ greatly, there is one resounding theme apparent: as a country, we need to make college education more affordable and work to reduce the amount of student debt.  According to the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, for the 2013-2014 academic year, the average current dollar price for tuition, room and board was approximately $18,000 for public 4-year institutions and approximately $41,000 for private non-profit institutions. According to Experian, an information services company that analyzed trends related to student loans from 2008 to 2014, the total outstanding student loan balance is $1.2 trillion, an all-time record, and the average student loan balance is $29,000. Unfortunately, these trends are continuing to rise, and many students are defaulting on student loans.

In order to curb rising student debt and default rates, one of the proposals being discussed is debt-free college, and on the surface, the term sounds great, but it raises questions about what debt-free college really means and whether it is a feasible option.  The idea of debt-free college varies, although the initial underlying principle that came out of Demos, a public policy organization, last year was the idea of increased federal support for state universities in order to allow poor to middle-class students to graduate from these institutions without incurring debt.   The proposal requires joint efforts between students and families and the state and federal governments, and encourages reform of programs that aren’t functioning properly. Since the initial article, various presidential candidates have expanded on the idea of debt-free college and whether it should cover room and board or just tuition, how funds would be allocated across poor to middle-class students, what kind of reform should be made to student financial aid, and how institutions would be held accountable for results.  Opponents of debt-free college believe that the cost of education should not be transferred to the taxpayers and that the cost of such a program is too much of a burden on taxpayers.   Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s an interesting topic of debate given rising tuition, total student loans and the number of defaults.   Given the importance of college education to families and taxpayers, stay tuned for more in-depth discussion and details as the campaign unfolds!

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