The Case For Free Tuition

In response to the skyrocketing prices of higher education, calls for free tuition for low-income students are echoing through the American population.


  • Visit the Campaign for Free College Tuition to support free tuition for low and middle class income students at public colleges and universities

By Gillian Hand

In a fiercely competitive professional environment, the value of a college degree is undeniable yet concerningly unattainable for many lower-income families. A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics had only 16% of low-income students graduating from a college or university, a condition largely due to the towering expenses of higher education.[1] In response to these dropping rates of college enrollment and completion, the price of postsecondary education has grown into a heated debate, prompting concerns about the future of our education system and the state of the American workforce.[2] As frequent funding cuts force public colleges and universities to raise their fees and tuition, higher education has become unreachable for many low and middle-class students, prompting louder calls for a revolutionary change in educational opportunity: free tuition.

With student debt rising to a record $1.5 trillion, the concept of free tuition has proved itself to be a compelling American issue. Supporters of the movement highlight the escalating costs and inevitable debts that prevent many low-income students from attending college, emphasizing how the inaccessibility of higher education damages their futures as well as the state of American society as a whole.[3] Opponents argue that the programs will in fact cause more harm than benefit; with less money in public institutions, faculty and resource capacities would decrease and funding would be repealed from important need-based financial aid programs.[4] When paired with the prospect of higher taxes and the concern that free tuition will not solve the income inequalities at the heart of the issue, these arguments push back against the movement’s efforts to make higher education accessible for lower-income Americans.

The movement for free college tuition was launched in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Michigan, with the creation of the Kalamazoo Promise scholarship. With funds from anonymous donors, this initiative pledged to send graduates of the Kalamazoo public school system to in-state colleges and universities for free.[5] The Kalamazoo Promise not only produced higher levels of college enrollment among high school graduates, but also inspired twelve other states to implement free tuition programs of their own, often with specific terms and conditions. Some initiatives require applicants to maintain a certain GPA, while others ask that eligible students present clean records or pursue a specific area of study. To combat economic concerns, some programs observe a “last dollar” policy that requires students to seek federal aid — scholarships and Pell Grants — before turning to state organizations to cover the remaining tuition gap.[6] 

Following the passage of the 2018 State Budget earlier this year, New York launched a free tuition plan of its own to offer qualifying students a new path to a college degree: the Excelsior Scholarship. In an effort that has been applauded across the nation, New York state residents below the $125,000 income line now qualify for free tuition at City University and State University of New York institutions, opening doors for individuals who cannot otherwise come close to affording the skyrocketing prices of higher education.[7] 

        Naturally, these state initiatives are not perfect. While the Kalamazoo Promise was certainly a breakthrough in the drive for free tuition, there is no evidence that the program made any progress in overcoming the social mobility imbalances and income and racial inequalities that make the program necessary.[8] The Excelsior Scholarship has also produced its fair share of flaws with enrollment and completion; the program requires a minimum of 30 academic credits per year, a condition perceived to disadvantage students who work for a living or take care of children.[9] One student remarked that, as she was not appropriately informed about this requirement, she was rejected from the program due to insufficient credits from previous college semesters.[10] In addition, many free tuition programs do not include various substantial expenses such as textbooks, housing, and transportation. With these considerable costs excluded, it can grow difficult for an individual to produce necessary payments while keeping up with academic deadlines, ultimately endangering their ability to complete a college degree. To achieve the goal of equal access to educational opportunities, these complications must be recognized and righted.

Despite these programs’ shortcomings, it is clear that the free tuition movement is gaining speed at the state level. As it stands, however, there exists no federal law that creates and supports free tuition programs at the national level, keeping higher education out of reach for lower-income students across the nation. Enter H.R. 1880/S. 806, the College for All Act of 2017, a federal bill introduced to the Senate in April 2017 by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and in the House of Representatives by Pramila Jayapal (D-WA7). The College for All Act proposes to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965, making public institutions free for those below the $125,000 income level and community college costless for individuals of any income.[11] While the fear of raised  taxes has kept the Act from reviewal in the 115th Congress, the 37 Democratic co-sponsors in the House and seven Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate remain hopeful that it will be a starting point for future change and an inspiration for individual state action. These supporters plan to fund the bill with small taxes on Wall Street trades and bonds, a development that would keep the expenses off the shoulders of ordinary Americans.[12] With the new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives following the 2018 election, it is more likely that the bill will gain traction during the upcoming congressional cycle despite its lack of attention since its introduction. The educational opportunities that the College for All Act offers to lower-income citizens nationwide might just be the spark that higher education needs.

        The drive for affordable education will not proceed without complications. Students who fall above the maximum income line will not be eligible for free tuition programs, and will have to continue to seek out federal grants and scholarships with problems of their own. However, the recent push for free tuition is a battle that seeks to reform higher education and shape our nation’s future; regardless of income status, every student deserves the chance to pursue a degree that will provide them with the skills necessary to enter the workforce and advance American economic interests. While states like Michigan and New York have laid the groundwork, affordable education is an American issue that should be viewed and corrected at the national level.



[1] Musto, Pete. “Low-Income Students See Low Graduation Rates.” VOA, Voice of America, 7 Nov. 2017,

[2] Greenblatt, Alan. “Issues in Higher Education .” CQ Researcher , SAGE Publishing ,

[3] Hill, Catharine. “Opinion | Free Tuition Is Not the Answer.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Dec. 2017,

[4] Page, Max, and Dan Clawson. “It's Time to Push for Free College.” National Education Association ,

[5] Miller-Adams, Michelle. “About the Kalamazoo Promise.” The Upjohn Institute for Employment Research , 2015,

[6] Mercer, Marsha. “Why Free College Tuition Is Spreading From Cities to States.” The Pew Charitable Trusts,

[7] “Tuition-Free Degree Program: The Excelsior Scholarship.” Welcome to the State of New York, 18 Jan. 2018,

[8] Ready, Timothy. “Free College Is Not Enough: The Unavoidable Limits of the Kalamazoo Promise.” Social Mobility Memos , The Brookings Institution , 29 July 2016,

[9] Hilliard, Thomas J. “New York State's Excelsior Scholarship Shortcomings.” Center for an Urban Future (CUF),

[10] Disare, Monica. “Among NY Students Seeking New Excelsior Scholarship, Potentially Many Who Aren't Qualified or Could Pay a Price Later.” Chalkbeat, 1 Aug. 2017,

[11] Sanders, Bernard. “S.806 - 115th Congress (2017-2018): College for All Act of 2017.”, Library of Congress , 3 Apr. 2017,

[12] “H.R. 1880: College for All Act of 2017.”, Civic Impulse, LLC. ,