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Is Free College in the U.S. a Radical Proposal?

While many European countries offer free higher education, students in the U.S. are leaving school with a mountain of debt they may never overcome.

By Monica Leigh FrenchPublished 2 years ago 8 min read
Top Story - May 2022
Is Free College in the U.S. a Radical Proposal?
Photo by Vasily Koloda on Unsplash

During his 2016 campaign for U.S. President, Senator Bernie Sanders made free college part of his progressive agenda. He’s spoken many times about the life-altering changes that could come from making higher education free to all in America. Bernie has even gone so far as to call free college a right as a human being. He also pointed out that many countries in Europe offer some form of free college to their citizens. Immediately, his opponents called it a “radical” idea that would never pass through the U.S. Congress. By the time Senator Sanders ran for President again in 2020, free college was a major talking point in Democratic circles, with many people agreeing that it could change the lives of millions of Americans who would otherwise remain poor and uneducated or saddled with crushing debt for the rest of their lives.

Millennials are the first generation to do worse economically than their parents. A study found that only half of those who were born in 1984 earned more than their parents at about age 30, compared to 92% of those born in 1940.

According to David Grusky, a sociology professor at Stanford, “a big part of the American dream is that each generation will do better than the one that preceded it.”

There are many reasons why this is true. Millennials came of age at a terrible time in history-right as the Great Recession began and the economy collapsed. The economy doesn’t support the kind of upward mobility that it did before the Recession. Also, many millennials report having difficulty finding decent paying jobs. Rising housing costs have also been a factor. Our parents were able to make a living with one wage earner in the family. They bought houses that were maybe twice the cost of their annual income. That isn’t possible in today’s economic climate.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for Millennials is the increase of college tuition. A college education is now most likely to be the second most expensive purchase a person will make in their lifetime. Tuition has historically risen at the rate of 3% per year. During the Great Recession, the lack of public funds caused college tuition fees to increase dramatically. In private colleges and universities, tuition has risen 26% over the last decade. Tuition and fees at four-year public schools has risen over 35% in the same time period.

Finally, one U.S. state has decided to be the pioneer of free college — New Mexico. The Governor of New Mexico, Michelle Lujan Grisham signed the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act on Friday, making them the first official U.S. state to offer tuition-free higher education to its residents. The plan will waive tuition for all students attending in-state schools or tribal colleges, including community colleges. Eligible students must take at least six credit hours and must maintain a GPA of 2.5. Although some other states, such as California, have gone as far as making community colleges free for some students, the New Mexico bill is truly the first of its kind and a working model for what the federal government could do for the entire country.

Since taking office last January, President Joe Biden failed to get the support needed to pass his bill that would, amongst other proposals, make community colleges free nationwide. He has also considered cancelling student debt, another popular policy point among Democrats and liberals. Americans collectively owe $1.6 trillion on federal student loans. Senate Majority Leader, Chuck Schumer, Representative Ayanna Pressley, and Senator Elizabeth Warren have all called on President Biden to erase up to $50,000 per borrower using an executive action. It’s far past time for Congress to address the detrimental economic environment in which Millennials are trying to build their lives.

This issue affects me personally, as I have a mountain of student loan debt to overcome. I started college in 2010, three weeks after giving birth to my youngest son. At the time, my boyfriend was working a low wage job-I believe he was making no more than $9 an hour, even after he received a promotion for all his hard work. We needed more money coming in, but I couldn’t handle working full-time, going to school full-time, and raising a newborn baby all at the same time. So, I made the decision to take the maximum loan amount every semester, idealistically thinking it would not be a big strain to pay it off because I knew my boyfriend would find a way. The plan was for me to finish school and start working and then my boyfriend would go back to school while I was working a professional, well-paying job.

I started my higher education journey at a two-year community college. After two years, I earned my Associates degree and made plans to transfer to a four-year university to finish my bachelor's degree. My boyfriend, who was very fiscally conservative, wanted me to start making payments on the interest as soon as possible. Even though I was racking up more debt every semester, I was still sending small payments every month to keep the interest from getting out of control.

In 2013, my boyfriend-then fiancé, passed away, and my entire life was shaken to its core. I continued on for three more semesters before I had to take a leave of absence for my mental health. When I tried to return to school in 2018, I was only five classes away from finishing my degree. I figured I could knock that out in two semesters, as I didn’t want to overwhelm myself when I hadn’t been in college for so long. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. I found out that I had completely maxed out all federal loans and grants to which I was entitled. I had nothing left to pay for my remaining classes and I certainly couldn’t afford to foot the bill.

I received my first monthly bill for my student loans about six months after I left school. I nearly hit the floor when I saw my monthly payment: over $1,500! Because of my fiancé’s death and subsequent mental health issues, I wasn’t working. Luckily, the Department of Education understands that many people cannot afford to pay their monthly student loan bills and need a lower payment amount or even a forbearance until they get back on their feet. I had to apply for an income-driven repayment plan, in which you submit your financial information, and your student loan handler will give you a payment amount that is reasonable for your salary or lack thereof. My income-driven repayment plan brought my payment down to zero.

Every year, I must recertify my income-driven repayment plan. This week, I realized it was time to resubmit my application. This was the first time I had looked at the numbers in a long time. I had originally taken out $58,431 in federal loans. To my dismay, the total amount owed had skyrocketed to $80,694 with the interest accounting for a little less than $2,000. How had the principal ballooned to over $20,000 more than I had originally borrowed? I took a Business Math class in community college, so I had learned how to calculate interest on loans, but I do not remember anything from that class.

I’m sure someone could explain to me mathematically how this happened. But my question is how do we morally allow young adults to take out loans rivaling the size of mortgages before they even get their first professional job? I’m not suggesting we get rid of federal loans. They’re necessary for most people to be able to afford to attend college. If they don’t take out those loans, they will be forced to work full-time to pay for college while attending full-time and I’ve done the math-I don’t know how people make it work. We are setting up our young people for failure and Millennials just so happen to be the first set of guinea pigs to examine and they’re not doing so well.

My situation is even worse because I don’t have a degree! I am five classes short of a BA in political science. Luckily, I have found another way to pay for college and I plan to start taking online classes again in the Fall. My mother is a retired psychiatric nurse and a union member for decades. She recently got word from her union that they were paying for bachelor’s degrees for union members’ families at three online colleges. That means, I can pick one of the three colleges and attend on the union’s dime. Getting this amazing opportunity at this point in my life, after I have been through so much trauma and lost so much that is dear to me, is almost like a miracle. I could never fully express my gratitude and I wish other organizations would step up and do the same thing for young people in financial need.

The fact is, my student loans will haunt me, likely for the rest of my life. I fear that I will never be able to purchase my own house. Within the next seven years, I’ll have two boys in college and will have to figure out how to make that work too. No amount of financial acrobatics will make this easy. That’s why I am calling on our federal and state legislatures to do something now. This problem is rapidly growing out of control and will result in an entire generation in perpetual debt if something isn’t done. There has to be priorities in this country, and I can’t think of anything much more important than investing in human capital. When one succeeds, we all succeed. All Americans benefit from having a thriving, financially sound, educated population and unless our elected officials step in, we may all be on a sinking ship to poverty.


About the Creator

Monica Leigh French

Student. Writer at I’m mostly inspired by writing about personal experiences, politics, addiction, and mental health issues. Pink Floyd fanatic. Twitter: @french_monica.

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Comments (4)

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  • David Thomas2 years ago

    I definitely agree with this story.

  • Lichen2 years ago

    Another issue that the past 2 generations have is that everyone and their dog has a degree now, and to be competitive you have to keep re-upping and paying into the education system. Get a masters, get another, get this certification, jump through this hoop, spin around, circle back and lay on your back, exhausted...broke.

  • Ayumi2 years ago

    I believe education should be one of things free for anyone who has desire to learn. If we keep thinking the way we have been, the result will be the same; we will continue to create the nation that penalizes people who wish to learn and grow. To me, that is not only unfair but also injustice. Why do we think it’s impossible to make education free when there are other countries already exercising the idea?

  • Jason A2 years ago

    There are far too many problems with the idea of free college especially considering it's not really free. Somebody is paying for it with taxes. Second, what about how unfair it is to all those people who had to pay their own way who graduated years ago? Sure, college is too expensive and possibly not worth it anymore but free is ridiculous.

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