51% of young Americans support tuition-free public college

Graduating students attend New York University's commencement ceremony at Yankee Stadium.
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College graduates consistently outearn workers with a high school diploma. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, 65% of all jobs in the U.S. economy will require education beyond high school by 2020.

But college is also more expensive than ever. According to the College Board's 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report, prices at public two-year and private non-profit four-year schools doubled from 1988 to 2018, and in-state tuition and fees at public four-year schools tripled.

It makes sense, then, that more than half of young Americans today are in favor of free public college.

A survey from the Harvard Kennedy School's Institute of Politics found that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support eliminating tuition and fees at public colleges and universities for students from families that make up to $125,000, and making community college tuition-free for all income levels for an estimated cost of $47 billion.

That's a slight decrease from when Harvard conducted the biannual poll in the fall of 2018, when 56% supported free college. But support for such a policy is higher among likely Democratic primary voters (69%) and among likely 2020 general election voters (56%).

With significant support among young voters, many believe it is time to start making free college a reality. Here's how it might work:

Candidate proposals

The issue of free college has become a common talking point among Democratic presidential candidates.

In April, Sen. Elizabeth Warren released an ambitious $1.25 trillion education proposal that would eliminate tuition and fees at all two-year and four-year public universities using funds from her proposed Ultra-Millionaire Wealth Tax, which would tax the estimated 0.1% of Americans with over $50 million in assets.

But the idea of low-cost college predates the 2020 election. In fact in some states it's already available.

In 2015, President Barack Obama proposed making two-year community college free for qualifying students, which former Vice President Joe Biden says he supports. Free college was central to Sen. Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign platform. In 2017, he introduced the College for All Act with Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Senator Kamala Harris supported Sanders' bill in 2017 and also co-sponsored the Debt-Free College Act of 2018, which proposed creating a federal-state partnership to incentivize states to reduce or eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities.

Not all Democratic candidates have embraced the idea of free college. Mayor Pete Buttigieg says he opposes free college and instead prefers dramatically expanding Pell Grants. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has maintained a similar stance, saying, "If I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would." Klobuchar also supports expanding Pell Grants.

Free and low-cost college is already available in some places

Eleven states — Oregon, Nevada, Arkansas, New Jersey, Maryland, Tennessee, New York, Rhode Island, Delaware, Kentucky and Indiana — have programs that offer select college students two years of free tuition at participating state community colleges or other associate-degree programs and vocational schools. Several other states are working on similar legislation.

These programs are typically "last dollar" scholarships, meaning the program pays for whatever tuition is owed after financial aid and grants.

In 2017, San Francisco became the city first in the U.S. to make free community college available to all residents, regardless of income. The city approved a transfer tax on properties selling for more than $5 million to fund an education program that allows all city residents to attend the City College of San Francisco tuition-free. In order to take advantage of the initiative, students need to have lived in the city of San Francisco for at least one year.

In the same year, New York announced the Excelsior Scholarship Program and was recognized as the first state in the country to offer free four-year public college. "Today, college is what high school was," said Gov. Andrew Cuomo in a statement. "It should always be an option, even if you can't afford it."

As of the 2019-2020 school year, students from families that make up to $125,000 will be eligible to attend the State University of New York and City University of New York colleges free of charge, as long as they are enrolled full-time, maintain a passing grade point average and work in the state of New York for the amount of time that they attended college.

The true meaning of "free"

When the Excelsior Scholarship was announced, New York's state government estimated that some 940,000 middle-class families in the state qualify for the program, but a significantly fewer number students have taken advantage of it so far.

One frequent critique of programs like Excelsior is that the word "free" is misleading. Programs don't always cover living expenses and they're not always open to students from wealthy families. Also, some programs are tax-funded.

In states like New York and Michigan, explicitly labeling academic programs "free" has been found to increase applications and matriculation among low-income students. "We all understand that you pay taxes in order to have free tuition for K-12," Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor at Temple University, tells CNBC Make It. "We all understand that you still have to buy school supplies and feed our children. Free does not have to mean all free in order for the word to be truthful and effective."

Student loans vs retirement
Student loans vs retirement

This comparison to American K-12 education is one reason that opponents have given in the past for rejecting free college initiatives.

"Everyone says America has a high-quality education system, many say we have the best in the world. People flock to our country to go to university, but no one says that about our K-12 schools — no one," Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, tells CNBC Make It. "Part of the reason for that is we have a competitive system in higher education that we don't have in K-12. We have fee market-based elements of our higher ed system, where people do pay money, so people have skin in the game."

Vedder argues that given the current deficit, the U.S. is unable to fund spending on free education initiatives.

"If you give truly free college — such as free community college or two years of free college at a traditional four-year college or whatever the policy might be — you are going to include a number of people receiving tuition from the government that are from wealthy families," he says. "If you wanted to help low-income people get a college degree, there are better ways to do that. It's better to keep the traditional system and target low-income people with aggressive need-based aid."

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