Is free college the answer for surging tuition and the crippling burden of student loan debt?
Amid new initiatives and broadening political support to make education more affordable, the idea of sending U.S. high school graduates to college for free has gained ground. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama proposed a nationwide free community college plan, currently being weighed by Congress.
The president's plan would grant free tuition to any student enrolled at least halftime with a 2.5 grade-point average, and with a family income under $200,000. In recent weeks, similar proposals have been passed by Oregon and Tennessee.
According to a Gallup Poll of millennials, college affordability is the top financial concern, and with good reason: The class of 2015 graduated with an average of $35,051 in debt, an all-time high. Underscoring the sense of urgency, 70 percent of graduating students leave college with debt.
Crushing college costs has become a big political talking point in the current election cycle. Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders unveiled a "Robin Hood Tax" in May, which is a plan to tax 50 cents on every $100 of Wall Street trades to pay for tuition-free public college, helping to fuel support from younger voters for his candidacy. In Seattle, Republicans in Washington's Senate have proposed a raft of measures to curb state tuition costs by 25 percent.
Free or cheap college is appealing for a number of reasons, but is it the best plan? The most salient concern is that "free" is likely to be anything but, as costs will likely to be passed along to taxpayers rather than students. That could result in billions being spent that would dwarf current outlays in the form of grants, loans and other support.
Meanwhile, critics have other doubts.
"The paradox of free college is that the institutions may have to limit the number of spots or reduce quality," said Ben Wildavsky, director of higher education studies at the Rockefeller Institute of Government, State University of New York.
"In some countries with free tuition, it's often students who can afford fancy private schools that get the preparation needed to be admitted to the free universities," he said.