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A demonstrator holds a sign during a student debt cancellation rally

People hold signs during a rally for student debt cancellation outside the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. on April 4, 2022. (Photo: Stefani Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images)

As Student Debt Fight Continues, Progressives Eye Another Goal: Tuition-Free College

"We intend to keep fighting until all student debt is canceled and college is free," said one campaigner.

Jake Johnson

After scoring a major but partial victory in the yearslong fight to eliminate the crushing burden of student debt, progressive lawmakers and campaigners stressed the importance of a deeply interconnected goal as they work toward total debt cancellation: Making public colleges and universities tuition-free for all.

While President Joe Biden's plan to wipe $10,000 off the student loan balances of most federal borrowers includes reforms that will make debt repayment more manageable going forward—as well as new rules aimed at cracking down on institutions that drown vulnerable students in debt—it will do little to alter an absurd and massively unjust system that allows colleges to drive up costs at will.

"We also need to make college tuition-free so debt is not accumulated moving forward."

"Much like the medical system, higher education is badly in need of price regulation," writes The American Prospect's Ryan Cooper. "For decades now, the government has been shoveling subsidies into colleges and universities, and (with a few exceptions) they have responded by jacking their prices through the roof. Biden can't do this by himself, of course, but it's long since time for the government to start demanding a better deal for itself—and American students."

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helped elevate and mainstream the solution of tuition-free public colleges and universities, which he frequently noted are a mainstay of several major countries and used to be commonplace in the United States.

But public college and university tuition and fees have surged in recent decades, making it necessary for students from lower-income families to take on often obscene levels of debt to pursue a higher education. The average federal student loan debt balance is $37,113—and with private loan debt included, that figure jumps to nearly $41,000.

"The average public university student borrows $30,030 to attain a bachelor's degree," notes the Education Data Initiative.

Estimates of what it would cost the federal government to make public colleges and universities tuition-free—thus removing the primary reason for student loan debt—vary, with some analysts putting the cost at around $80 billion a year.

That sum, a mere fraction of the Pentagon's yearly budget, is easily affordable. As economist David Deming has noted, "the federal government spent $91 billion on policies that subsidized college attendance" in 2016.

"That is more than the $79 billion in total tuition and fee revenue for public institutions," Deming observed. "At least some of the $91 billion could be shifted into making public institutions tuition-free."

"In short," he added, "at least some—and perhaps all—of the cost of universal tuition-free public higher education could be defrayed by redeploying money that the government is already spending."

Alternatively, Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) have proposed financing a plan for tuition-free public colleges and universities by taxing Wall Street speculation.

"If the United States is going to effectively compete in the global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world, and that means making public colleges and universities tuition-free as many other major countries currently do—and that includes trade schools and minority-serving institutions as well," Sanders said in a statement Wednesday.

"In the year 2022, in the wealthiest country on Earth," the senator continued, "everyone in America who wants a higher education should be able to get that education without going into debt."

Others echoed that message Wednesday. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) argued in the wake of Biden's announcement of $10,000 in student debt cancellation for most borrowers that "student debt relief is just one component of a moral society."

"We also need to make college tuition-free so debt is not accumulated moving forward and invest in universal early education," said Omar.

Consider, though, that in 2016 (the most recent year for which detailed expenditures are available), the federal government spent $91 billion on policies that subsidized college attendance. That is more than the $79 billion in total tuition and fee revenue for public institutions. At least some of the $91 billion could be shifted into making public institutions tuition-free.

During his presidential campaign, Biden endorsed making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students from families with annual incomes of less than $125,000.

But the president hasn't pushed for that proposal during his first year and a half in the White House. Last year, an attempt to make community college free as part of the Build Back Better package collapsed amid opposition from right-wing Democrats.

According to the Education Department, the president's newly announced plan will entail "steps to reduce the cost of college for students and their families and hold colleges accountable for raising costs, especially when failing to deliver good outcomes to students."

"The department is announcing new steps to take action against colleges that have contributed to the student debt crisis," the agency said in a statement Wednesday. "These include publishing an annual watch list of the programs with the worst debt levels in the country and requesting institutional improvement plans from colleges with the most concerning debt outcomes that outline how the college intends to bring down debt levels."

While welcome, such changes are unlikely to result in large-scale reductions in tuition costs.

"We intend to keep fighting until all student debt is canceled and college is free," tweeted Astra Taylor, a co-founder of the Debt Collective, the nation's first debtors' union and a driving force behind grassroots support for broad-based student debt cancellation.

"If Biden can cancel this much debt, he can cancel it all. And one day, a president will," Taylor added. "And yes, we are coming for medical debt, rent, and carceral debt too."

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