Nearly two-thirds of Americans (63%) support tuition-free public college for all U.S. students, a new study from the Pew Research Center finds.
But the country's opinions are divided by political party. While 83% percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning adults Pew surveyed favor free college, 60% of Republicans and those who skewed Republican oppose the concept.
Just over half of white Americans (53%) favored free public college, compared to 86% and 82%, respectively, among black and Hispanic adults. College affordability continues to be a key talking point among contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination.
Pew's statistics concerning racial minorities, which it collected in January, are unsurprising given those groups and low-income students have historically struggled with college access.
The Institute for Higher Education Policy's 2018 study of admissions and graduation rates at six flagship institutions in the Midwest revealed that students of color and impoverished students earn degrees at far lower rates than their peers. For example, the graduation rate in 2016 for white students at Indiana University Bloomington was 78%, but for underrepresented minority students it was 64%, a 14-percentage-point difference.
Overall, recent surveys suggest that most Americans don't think college is affordable. Only one in four adults that Gallup recently surveyed reported that they felt a postsecondary education was accessible to everyone in the country who needs it.
As the 2020 presidential contest heats up, those vying to become the Democratic nominee have tried to tap into the frustration over college affordability, introducing plans that offer some type of tuition-free education.
The most progressive proposals come from U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, and Bernie Sanders, of Vermont, both of whom want to extend free college to two- and four-year public institutions. They also propose to significantly expand student loan debt forgiveness.
Former Vice President Joe Biden's plan is more moderate, proposing to make up to two years of community college free.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, also wants to make four-year public colleges tuition-free, but only for families earning $100,000 or less. Students whose families earn between $100,000 to $150,000 would receive discounted tuition.
Most recently, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg introduced his plan, which would include free community college for all students and double the maximum award for federal Pell Grants to nearly $13,000.
Critics have identified flaws in these plans. For instance, two-year colleges tend to have lower graduation rates than their four-year counterparts, and some have said Warren's and Sanders' proposals would benefit affluent students.