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Why Free College Matters in the Time of COVID

Now is the perfect time to talk about the federal government making a firm, durable guarantee of free or affordable college to all students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every sector of our economy, exposing (and often worsening) inequities in our housing and health care systems and our labor market. One sector, though, has been particularly vulnerable to this pandemic: higher education. Campuses across the country have been forced to make quick decisions about the right mix of online and in-person instruction, how to address campus housing, or how to stand up new testing and tracing systems that might minimize risk to students, faculty, and workers. College sports have been completely upended. State colleges and universities, including the community colleges that enroll 40 percent of all students in higher education, are facing deep cuts to budgets that have mostly yet to recover from the Great Recession. And institutions, particularly those that enroll high numbers of poor and working-class students, are sure to be impacted by the havoc on family balance sheets in an economy where around 1 million families a week are filing for unemployment. Given all of this, it may seem a silly time to talk about the need for free college.

With families [...] digging out from under an economic collapse for which they could not possibly have planned, the idea that college prices will simply continue to grow seems particularly cruel.

And yet, there are several reasons why now may be an entirely appropriate time to talk about the federal government making a firm, durable guarantee of free or affordable college to all students. First, while overall college enrollment is down due to the unique factors of the pandemic, we know from previous recessions that the ranks of those going to college will likely swell if the Senate is unable to commit to another recovery package, and if broad economic pain lingers. With families, particularly Black, brown, and immigrant families, digging out from under an economic collapse for which they could not possibly have planned, the idea that college prices will simply continue to grow seems particularly cruel. In an economy scrambled by the pandemic, it would send a powerful signal were we to tell workers and families that they can follow their educational aspirations, whatever they may be, at minimal to no cost, in the same way we do not ask people to pay tuition or take on loans for K-12 education.

Second, given the broad consensus that the federal government must help fill gaps in state and local budgets and the likelihood of Congressional action either late this year or early 2021, Congress could easily restore college and university budgets with extra funding to ensure that students no longer have to worry about the price. In return, colleges would provide some guarantee of affordability—free tuition, or a debt-free model that covers more of the cost of attendance and addresses housing, food, and childcare insecurity—to students, with extra funds for those schools that commit to enrolling high numbers of Black and brown students. Funds could be set on auto-pilot and increased during regional or national economic slowdowns, with more asked of states when employment and tax revenue are higher.

[F]amilies have over $1.5 trillion in student debt on their balance sheets.

And third, the pandemic has revealed the insufficiency of our nation’s safety net and the damaging consequences of decades of privatization, financialization, and extraction from the public sector, including higher ed. In a country that could once tout the creation of land-grant colleges, the GI Bill, and community college systems—public systems that helped propel a largely-white population to and through the middle class—students now must contend with tens of thousands in debt for an education deemed essential to keep them afloat. While Congress and the Trump administration offered modest relief by suspending student loan payments through the crisis, families have over $1.5 trillion in student debt on their balance sheets. For those who are repaying their debt while facing housing insecurity, a child and family care crisis, and an unfriendly job market, all while trying to save for their kids’ education, the task is nearly impossible.

It may be easy to forget now, but the debate over how—or whether—to guarantee tuition- and debt-free public college animated many of the Democratic primary debates last year. While all, even moderate, candidates supported free community college and expanded Pell Grants for low-income students, there was a robust debate between the likes of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Senator Amy Klobuchar, over whether to offer free college to all or only to a subset of low- and middle-income students. It was a debate fueled by arguments over universal public goods vs. targeted benefits, complexity over simplicity, and the basic values that make up our social contract.

Of course, none of these candidates won the party’s nomination for president. For his part, former Vice President Joe Biden’s platform calls for a federal-state partnership for 2 years of free college for all families, and 4 years of college free for those earning under $125,000 a year, while investing $70 billion in public and private Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Tribal Colleges and Universities, and Minority Serving Institutions. The Biden plan would also double the maximum Pell grant, allowing students around $12,000 to use for living costs, expenses, transportation, childcare, and any non-tuition expense. This is an important feature, since non-tuition burdens make up well over half the price of public college, and given the housing, health, and childcare crisis facing students and families across the country, it would almost certainly reduce the need to take on burdensome debt. Vice President Biden has also proposed a crackdown on predatory colleges and lenders, and up to $10,000 in debt cancellation for existing borrowers, a smaller amount than many advocates have asked for, but an amount that would eliminate debt entirely for about one-third of our nation’s student debtors.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has done virtually nothing to fix the long-term student debt crisis. There has been little effort to help state higher education systems backstop some of the cuts, and only a poorly-implemented pause on payments, when families have a need to have their debts reduced or eliminated. Further, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has empowered predatory for-profit colleges that take federal loan, grant, and veterans’ benefits to aggressively enroll students and load them up with debt, while denying relief to many who were defrauded by those schools in the first place.

[W]e could make a once-in-a-century commitment to the most diverse generation of students in our history[.]

At a time when many community colleges competing for the same students are facing dire financial straits, we could go in 1 of 2 directions as a nation: fully gut many of our public 4-year and community colleges, forcing layoffs and furloughs and tuition hikes, while letting bad actors proliferate and eat away at what is left of the American dream, all while well-resourced institutions weather the storm. Or we could make a once-in-a-century commitment to the most diverse generation of students in our history, make amends for historic and modern extraction from Black and brown households, and at a time of nearly unprecedented financial worry, make it so families shoulder one fewer burden.