For decades, free high-school education helped strengthen the middle class and generate prosperity. So isn’t it time to extend the same thinking to college?
The idea might seem impractical, since college costs more than high school and higher education isn’t for everybody in the first place. Yet it’s also obvious that a high school education alone isn’t nearly as valuable as it used to be, which is why some researchers and policymakers are now studying ways to make college as accessible as high school for those who want it. College is free in Scandinavian countries and highly subsidized in much of Europe, including Belgium, France, Italy and Spain. In Germany, an eight-year test of new university fees ended recently with the last state abolishing them, making college free throughout the country, as it was prior to 2006.
Attending a U.S. public university costs an average of $16,000 per year, and a new proposal from Demos, a left-leaning think tank, outlines a way for students to graduate debt-free in four years while working a limited number of hours. The poorest students would receive grants that cover 75% of tuition and living expenses, with subsidized loans and work-study jobs covering the rest. Grants would phase out for wealthier students, yet the plan would still help reduce or eliminate student-debt burdens that for some graduates are becoming a ruinous liability.