progressives have another goal in mind: tuition-free college

 While the fight against student debt continues, progressives have another goal in mind: tuition-free college

"We will keep fighting until all student debt is canceled and college is free," said one activist.

While the fight against student debt continues, progressives have another goal in mind: tuition-free college

Following an important, if partial, victory in the years-long fight to eliminate crushing student debt burdens, progressive lawmakers and activists have emphasized the importance of a closely related goal as they work toward full debt forgiveness: Public colleges and universities should be tuition-free for all.

While President Joe Biden's plan to forgive $10,000 of student loans for most federal borrowers includes reforms that will make debt repayment more bearable in the future, as well as new rules aimed at cracking down on institutions that drown at-risk students in debt, it will do little to change an absurd and massively inequitable system that allows colleges to drive up costs at will.

"Much like the medical system, higher education is in desperate need of price regulation," writes Ryan Cooper of The American Prospect. "For decades, the government has shoveled subsidies into colleges and universities, which in response (with few exceptions) have driven up their prices. Biden can not do it alone, of course, but it's long past time for the government to start demanding a better deal for itself - and for American students."

During his 2016 presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) helped tout the solution of tuition-free public colleges and universities, which he repeatedly pointed out are important in several major countries and used to be commonplace in the United States.

But tuition at public colleges and universities has skyrocketed in recent decades, often requiring students from low-income families to take on obscene amounts of debt to obtain a higher education. The average federal student loan debt is $37,113 - and when private loan debt is included, that number rises to nearly $41,000.

"The average public college student must raise $30,030 to earn a bachelor's degree," notes the Education Data Initiative.

Estimates of what it would cost the federal government to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, eliminating the main reason for student loan debt, vary, with some analysts estimating the cost at about $80 billion a year.

That sum, which is only a fraction of the Pentagon's annual budget, is quite affordable. As economist David Deming noted, in 2016 the federal government "spent $91 billion on measures to subsidize college attendance."

"That's more than the $79 billion that public higher education institutions collect in total tuition," Deming said. "At least some of that $91 billion could be used to make public institutions tuition-free.

"In short," he added, "at least some - maybe even all - of the cost of universal tuition-free public higher education could be met by reallocating money the government is already spending."

Alternatively, Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) have proposed funding a plan for tuition-free public colleges and universities by taxing Wall Street speculation.

"If the United States is going to compete effectively in the global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world, and that means public colleges and universities must be tuition-free, as many other major countries currently are - and that includes vocational schools and minority institutions," Sanders said in a statement Wednesday.

"In 2022, in the wealthiest country on earth," the senator continued, "everyone in America who aspires to higher education should be able to get it without going into debt."

Others echoed this message on Wednesday. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) said after Biden's announcement to forgive most borrowers' $10,000 debt that "student debt forgiveness is just one component of a moral society."

"We also need to make college tuition-free so debt does not accumulate and invest in universal early education," Omar said.

Keep in mind, however, that in 2016 (the most recent year for which detailed spending is available), the federal government spent $91 billion on measures to subsidize college attendance. That's more than the $79 billion in tuition revenue for public institutions. At least some of the $91 billion could be redirected to tuition-free public institutions.

During his presidential campaign, Biden advocated for tuition-free tuition at public colleges and universities for students from families earning less than $125,000 a year.

But the president has not championed that proposal in his first year and a half in the White House. Last year, an effort to make community colleges free as part of the Build Back Better package failed because of opposition from right-wing Democrats.

According to the Department of Education, the president's newly announced plan "will include steps to lower college costs for students and their families and hold colleges accountable for rising costs, particularly if they are not delivering good outcomes for students.

"The Department is announcing new steps to crack down on colleges that have contributed to the student debt crisis," the agency said in a statement Wednesday. "This includes publishing an annual watch list of the highest debt programs in the country and requiring institutional improvement plans from colleges with the most troubling debt scores to outline how the college plans to reduce debt."

While such changes are welcome, they are unlikely to lead to widespread reductions in tuition.

"We will keep fighting until all student debt is canceled and college is free," tweeted Astra Taylor, co-founder of the Debt Collective, the nation's first debtors union and a driving force behind broad support for student debt relief.

"If Biden can cancel that much debt, he can cancel them all. And someday a president will," Taylor added. "And yes, we will also cancel the debt of doctors, renters and welfare recipients.

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