Has the time for free college tuition come?

Published 5:14 pm Monday, December 23, 2019


Contributing columnist

College tuition keeps rising. Student debt keeps mounting. Discouragement about higher education affordability keeps growing. Presidential candidates are proposing answers, and most Americans are agreeing. Is free tuition at public institutions an idea whose time has come?

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If you find the statistics from the Values Survey of 2019 by the Public Religion Research Institute convincing, the idea definitely has legs. How so? According to the survey, a solid majority of Americans (68%) favor or strongly favor free tuition at public institutions. Less than three in 10 oppose or strongly oppose the idea.

If there is a devil on this issue, it’s in the details. There are age group disparities of note. As we might expect, young Americans (18-29) are the heartiest supporters — 81% are in broad or strong support. Only 19% of them oppose or strongly oppose. The majority, however, shrinks with age — 70% of 30-49 year olds, 65% of the 50-65 year olds, and only 56% of those over 65.

Then there are ethnic demographic details. 62% of African Americans, 47% of Hispanics, 38% of other/mixed race Americans, and only 24% of white Americans are on board. Among black Americans (3%) and Hispanics (4%), less than 1 in 10 strongly oppose. In contrast, nearly 1 in 5 white Americans (18%) and other/mixed race Americans (15%) strongly oppose. Is it possible that we can detect here some white suspicion of extending too much help, even “reparations” to people of color?

Among whites, there are some telling disparities. 65% of non-college-educated whites favor or strongly favor free tuition. College-educated whites are evenly split — with 50% favoring and 50% opposing. Among those with only a high school diploma or less, 40% are in favor. Among those with some college credit, 36% are in support, and college grads drop to 25%. What sentiments might lie behind these percentages? Maybe, “I made it the hard way; why should they have it handed to them?”

There is also an interesting divide between those who regard a college education as a “risky gamble” and those who regard it as a “smart investment.” 60% of grads say “smart investment” while 39% say “risky gamble.” Among all Americans, 49% say “risky gamble,” and 50% say “smart investment.” People want to believe in what they labored to get.

As for ethnic demographics, 53% of black Americans say “risky,” and 45% say “smart.” For Hispanics, it’s 48% to 52%; for other/mixed race Americans, it’s 56% to 44%.

The larger splits are registered by college-educated and not college-educated white people. 57% of not college-educated say “risky.” 39% of those who are college educated say that. Do we tend to discredit what we failed to achieve or see as beyond our reach?

Finally, there are the partisan divides. 60% of Democrats say “smart investment” while only 47% of Independents and 45% of Republicans agree. 55% of Republicans say “risky gamble,” as do 52% of Independents and 38% of Democrats. 

It would appear that those more privileged educationally are more apt to extoll the value of a college education. Those who consider themselves outliers in the culture of higher education or in access to higher education may be more inclined to discredit the value or to begrudge access for others enabled by the government or private sources.

When we are aware of the yawning racial wealth gap (as documented in a recent column in this space), we might see that college availability and affordability could well be an important step toward closing that gap. Likewise, the guarantee of access to higher education for all Americans without limiting that enabled access to ethnic minorities is a way to providing reparations for past injustice to people of color without limiting that access to people of color.

Providing such a guarantee need not mean subsidizing families at the very top of American income and wealth distribution. But when both the descendants of slaves and economically challenged white people both stand to receive free tuition for college, one can see how strong statistical support might develop for free college tuition at public institutions. It’s no wonder that presidential candidates are endorsing it. It’s no wonder that a large percentage of voters also support it. It does seem to be an idea whose time has come. And it could be a form of reparation that would win over detractors who currently oppose any form at all.


Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.