Americans support free college yet think 4-year degrees worth the price
- Nearly three-quarters of Americans support free college, although a majority (60%) also think a four-year degree is worth today's high prices, according to a new survey from the APM Research Lab. About 36% question its value, most often, they say, because it leaves people with high debt and without specific job skills.
- Seventy-percent of respondents with a bachelor's degree or higher think a four-year degree is worth the cost, compared to those with a high school diploma or less (55%). More Democrats (69%) than Republicans and Independents (55% each) said it was worth the cost.
- Free college had strong support among women, those ages 18 to 44, Democrats, part-time workers, and Latino and non-Hispanic black respondents. Eighty-percent of respondents under the age of 45 support the idea, compared to 57-66% of those age 55 and older.
The free college concept is steadily gaining support at the state level. Just last week, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed a free community college plan that, if approved, would take effect in her state in 2021 and cost between $80 million and $100 million annually. It would also provide a $2,500 scholarship for students enrolling at four-year colleges. Michigan would join nearly two dozen states that have such plans.
Such programs have had successes. For instance, The Providence Journal reported that the Community College of Rhode Island doubled the number of full-time students matriculating from high school since it started a free tuition program in 2017. Enrollment of low-income students also doubled.
But issues remain. Although policymakers have helped build momentum behind the free college idea by saying the cost to taxpayers would be worth the benefit of giving people an affordable way to develop skills needed in the workforce, many state- and locally funded programs don't cover all students' costs, The Atlantic reported this past fall. Federal support is required to ensure these programs actually help students who have the greatest need, but as the publication notes, it is unlikely to come.
Often where these programs fall short is in covering non-tuition costs such as housing, transportation and childcare that often aren't subsidized in free college programs or federal aid but can make attendance unaffordable.
A report last fall from The Education Trust found that among 15 statewide free college programs and 16 that had been proposed as of 2017, no program met all eight criteria it established for an equitable program and most only met half. The criteria included whether they covered the total cost of tuition, required the support be paid back, paid for other fees and living expenses, and included other eligibility conditions.
More generally, support for higher ed has wavered as sensitivity builds around tuition increases and perceptions of a growing partisan divide on campuses. A Gallup poll this past fall found Republicans' confidence in higher ed is falling faster than that of Democrats and Independents, a shift the organization attributed to a belief among the former group that colleges tilt liberal.