College tuition rates are rising at an unprecedented rate. In the early 1970s, a student could attend an in-state public university for about $985 a year, a cost that could be covered by working a minimum-wage job over the summer. By 2018, that figure rose to $10,230, a cost that would require 35 weeks of full-time, minimum-wage employment to pay off.
For the most economically elite sliver of the American public—who comfortably pay over $52,000 a year for a college education—these skyrocketing tuition costs are little more than an annoyance. But for the rest of the American population—people hoping to enjoy the 56 percent increase in earning potential that a college degree confers—these astronomical costs are a problem demanding a radical solution.
The College Promise Campaign presents itself as an important step in that direction. As a "national non-partisan initiative" seeking to "build broad public support for funding the first two years of college," the organization intends to make America's community colleges—and eventually some four-year programs—"as universal, free, and accessible as high school." says Robyn Hiestand, CPC's director of policy and research, "there's been incredible momentum [on this initiative] over the last three years." As a result of this momentum, "free college" has become a buzzword in higher education policy circles.
Despite some bipartisan support for the idea, whether or not it will capture the national political imagination remains another question altogether. There is also bipartisan opposition. Andrew Kelly, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, argues that "free tuition simply shifts costs from students to taxpayers and caps tuition at zero." His concern is that "public generosity" may not keep pace with educational demands, thus requiring schools to water down the quality of their services. More liberal critics—including Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election—oppose the idea on the grounds that it is regressive to use taxes to send wealthy children to college. Like many Democrats, she prefers a system whereby the tuition dollars of the elite subsidize those of the less fortunate.
Even when politicians strategically link the free college proposal with student debt forgiveness, as Elizabeth Warren recently did (proposing to pay for it by taxing the superrich), there remains the problem that, for many voters, "free" is perceived to signal a lie. A recent poll of Democrats and swing voters about the popularity of tuition-free proposals concluded that politicians should, according to Politico, "Drop the talk of free college." Hiestand concedes that, when it comes to free tuition, there's a significant "disconnect between perception and reality."
Further political complications arise from the fact that the existing "promise" programs (now in 24 states) often come with restrictive stipulations and caveats. If you want to attend "free college" through the Kalamazoo Promise, you must have not only attended Kalamazoo public schools, but have done so from kindergarten through 12th grade. In Maryland, the Community College Promise program offers funding to lower income students but converts it to a loan if the student leaves the state within a year of graduation. New Haven Promise requires students to do community service. "States need to do what's right for them," Hiestand says. But many see these stipulations as detracting from the idea of "free."
Meanwhile, despite these drawbacks, real-life success stories resulting from free tuition abound. Consider Nune Garipian, who went to a high school in Glendale, California, where over half the kids qualified for the National School Lunch Program. "I was part of that group," she says. After graduation she went to Pasadena Community College through the California Promise program, and from there to Yale University—only one of four students to transfer from a community college—where she now studies political science on a full scholarship.
Garipian attended PCC for free. She notes how her time there allowed her "to explore different subjects without the guilt of knowing each new experience would contribute to an overwhelming amount of debt." While attending an Ivy League school "once seemed like an impossible thing to do," Garipian, who has become engaged in social justice, is now thinking about going to law school. "If I didn't go to community college," she says, "I wouldn't be at Yale today."