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“The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and must be willing to bear the expense of it.”

- John Adams, 1785
  Today, the cost of attending many public colleges is so high that a lot of students simply can’t afford to. As a result, far fewer students from lower-income families attend college than those from upper-income families. That is in spite of the fact that the federal government continues to supply financial aid to eligible students, including Pell Grants (which don’t have to be repaid).
Here are some other important facts to keep in mind as you explore the question of whether or not college should be free of upfront costs:
In 2015, the total amount of student loan debt in America was estimated to be about $1.3 trillion (over 39 percent higher than it was just four years earlier).And student loans are, by far, the most dominant type of financial aid. During the 2012-2013 school year alone, about 10 million college students took out student loans (a 66-percent increase from a decade earlier).
More than $80 billion is spent each year by the federal government on post-secondary financial aid. In the 2012-2013 school year, that represented over 70 percent of all student financial assistance in the higher education sector.
In 2013, a federal Pell Grant covered only about 30 percent of the average cost of going to a public four-year college or university. Compare that to 1973 when a Pell Grant covered over 75 percent of the cost. So, what about two-year colleges? Is community college free if you get a Pell Grant? Well, it used to be. But a Pell Grant only covered about 60 percent of the cost of attending community college in 2013.
Over 20 million students were enrolled in American post-secondary schools in the fall of 2015, which was almost five million more than in 2000. Roughly seven million of those students attended two-year colleges.
According to estimates from 2013, young adults in America earn over 60 percent more if they have a bachelor’s degree than if they only complete high school.
Universal higher education would benefit the entire nation, not just the individual students who take advantage of it. It is both a private and public benefit. After all, more and more of today’s jobs are knowledge-based or require advanced technical skills. So a better-educated workforce would help fill many of the skills gaps that prevent America’s economy from growing faster.
Plus, since more people would be able to attain employer-desired credentials, more people would be able to take the good-paying jobs that often go unfilled. And that could result in billions of additional dollars circulating throughout the economy since people tend to spend more money when they have higher incomes and little or no debt. It could also mean that the government would take in a lot of extra tax revenues, which could go a long way toward paying for free public colleges.
The issue of why college should be free isn’t just an economic one. It’s also a moral and philosophical one. Do we want every American, regardless of social standing, to have an equal opportunity to reach his or her potential? That’s what this country is supposed to be about, yet social mobility has been eroding for the poor and middle class. And without easy and affordable access to quality higher education for everyone, the collective intelligence and goodwill of the nation could also erode. America might become even more socially divided.
Ultimately, many people believe that a college-level education should be an absolute right, so long as you have the ability to benefit from it. Here are some of the other commonly cited reasons why college should be free:
There might be a lot fewer Americans who need to seek other forms of public assistance.

People would have more freedom to contribute their talents, try new ideas, and pursue the lives they want if they didn’t have to start off in debt or stay stuck in a low-wage job. That could lead to happier people. And happier people could lead to a happier, more prosperous nation as a whole.

A better-educated population could result in smarter decision-making at every level of society, which could lead to faster progress in solving our most difficult, collective challenges.

Students would be able to focus more on their studies rather than worrying about how to scrape together enough funds for each upcoming school term. As a result, more of them might graduate on time, ready to take on important jobs in their communities.

Many of America’s top-performing high school students never apply to the most challenging colleges and universities even though they have the ability to succeed at them. They often come from minority and low-income households and end up pursuing more affordable, less-selective schools instead. And that helps create a widening gap between wealthier families and those that are less affluent.

Although it benefits many students, the nation’s existing financial aid system currently fails to provide an equal opportunity to every qualified American.

Graduating with high amounts of student loan debt has been shown to reduce a person’s chances of owning a home, getting married, having children, and accumulating wealth.


Student loan debt is crippling for college graduates
Between 2003 and 2012 the number of 25-year-olds with student debt increased from 25% to 43%, and their average loan balance was $20,326 in 2012--a 91% increase since 2003.1 10% of students graduate with over $40,000 in debt and about 1% have $100,000 in debt.2 The average student borrower graduated in 2011 with $26,600 in debt.3 According to the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, approximately 60% of 2011 college graduates have student loan debt balances equal to 60% of their annual income.4 Missing or being late for loan payments often results in a lower credit score and additional fees, thus escalating the debt problem and potentially jeopardizing future purchases and employment.5
1. Meta Brown and Sydnee Caldwell, “Young Student Loan Borrowers Retreat from Housing and Auto Markets,”, Apr. 17, 2013 2, 3, 5. Chris Denhart, “How the $1.2 Trillion College Debt Crisis Is Crippling Students, Parents and the Economy,”, Aug. 7, 2013 4. US Congress Joint Economic Committee, “The Causes and Consequences of Increasing Student Debt,”, June 2013 
Student loan debt often forces college graduates to live with their parents and delay marriage, financial independence, and other adult milestones
According to a 2012 Federal Reserve Study, 30-year-olds who have never taken out a student loan are now more likely to own homes than those who have taken out loans. Auto loans are also trending down at faster rates for those with student debt history than for those without.1 In 2013, student loan borrowers delayed retirement saving (41%), car purchases (40%), home purchases (29%), and marriage (15%).2 Less than 50% of women and 30% of men had passed the “transition to adulthood” milestones by age 30 (finishing school, moving out of their parents’ homes, being financially independent, marrying, and having children); in 1960, 77% of women and 65% of men had completed these milestones by age 30. 3 
1. Meta Brown and Sydnee Caldwell, “Young Student Loan Borrowers Retreat from Housing and Auto Markets,”, Apr. 17, 2013 2. Blake Ellis, “Student Debt Delays Spending, Saving – and Marriage,”, May 9, 2013 3. Robin Marantz Henig, “What Is It about 20-Somethings?,”, Aug, 18, 2010 
Student debt overwhelms many seniors
Whether they co-signed for a child or grandchild’s education, or took out loans for their own educations, in 2012 there were 6.9 million student loan borrowers aged 50 and over who collectively owed $155 billion with individual average balances between $19,521 and $23,820.1 Of the 6.9 million borrowers, 24.7% were more than 90 days delinquent in payments.1 Almost 119,000 of older borrowers in default were having a portion of their Social Security payments garnished by the US government in 2012. 2
1. Federal Reserve Bank of New York, “Student Loan Debt by Age Group,”, Mar. 29, 2013 2. Tamar Lewin, “Child’s Education, but Parents’ Crushing Loans,”, Nov. 11, 2012 
Student debt could cause another financial crisis
As of 2012 student loan debt was over $1 trillion dollars, and more than 850,000 student loans were in default.1 According to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, student loans are “beginning to have the same effect” on the economy that the housing bubble and crash created.2 Former Secretary of Education William Bennett, PhD, agrees that the student loan debt crisis “is a vicious cycle of bad lending policies eerily similar to the causes of the subprime mortgage crisis.”3 On Feb. 3, 2012, an advisory council to the Federal Reserve also warned that the growth in student debt “has parallels to the housing crisis.”4 As of Jan. 2013, the rate of default on student loans hit 15.1%--a nearly 22% increase since 2007. 5
1. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Report: Private Student Loan Borrowers Face Roadblocks to Repayment,”, Oct. 16, 2012 2. National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys (NACBA), “The Student Loan ‘Debt Bomb’: America’s Next Mortgage-Style Economic Crisis,”, Feb. 7, 2012 3. William J. Bennett, “The Looming Crisis of Student Loan Debt,”, Dec. 6, 2012 4. Joshua Zumbrun and Craig Torres, “Bankers Warn Fed of Farm, Student Loan Bubbles Echoing Subprime,”, May 7, 2013 5. Walter Hamilton, “Student-Loan Delinquency Rate Hits Danger Zone, Report Says,”, Jan. 30, 2013
Tuition has risen quicker than income, making it difficult for the average American to pay for college without incurring debt
The average cost for a 4-year degree (including room and board) increased 130% for private schools and 131.4% for public schools from fall 1982 to fall 2012, while median family income increased 10.9%.1 Published annual tuition rates for 4-year public colleges increased 27% ($1,850) from the 2007-2008 school year to the 2012-2013 school year on average.2 Tuition at public four-year colleges is up 27% beyond overall inflation.3
1. Heidi Shierholz, Natalie Sabadish, and Nicholas Finio, “The Class of 2013: Young Graduates Still Face Dim Job Prospects,”, Apr. 10, 2013 2. Phil Oliff, Vincent Palacios, Ingrid Johnson, and Michael Leachman, “Recent Deep State Higher Education Cuts May Harm Students and the Economy for Years to Come,”, Mar. 19, 2013 3. Phillip Elliott, “College Costs Keep Rising Faster Than Inflation,”, Aug. 13, 2013 
Student loan debt may not be forgiven in bankruptcy and may not have the same borrower protections as other consumer debt
A 2011 study found 60% of people attempting to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy were unsuccessful.1 In order to discharge a student loan in bankruptcy, the borrower must prove “undue hardship,” which can be difficult as in the case of Doug Wallace, Jr. who fought for six years to have his $38,000 in student loans discharged after becoming blind and being unable to work; his student loans were not discharged although his medical debt was immediately discharged.2 Medical, legal, credit card, loan, and even gambling debt can immediately be discharged in bankruptcy.3 Private student loans often do not have the same protections as federal loans like income-based repayments, discharges upon death, or military deferments.4 
1. Steve Rhode, “4 out of 10 Actually Were Able to Discharge Student Loans in Bankruptcy—but Most Never Try,”, Jan. 7, 2013 2, 3. Joe Valenti and David A. Bergeron, “How Qualified Student Loans Could Protect Borrowers and Taxpayers,”, Aug. 20, 2013 4. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Report: Private Student Loan Borrowers Face Roadblocks to Repayment,”, Oct. 16, 2012

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