Why we shouldn’t say “Debt Free College”

A few years ago, I wrote up an organizing plan for folks like me who have an awful amount of student loan debt. I called it a campaign for a “Debt-Free Future” as a way to reframe the narrative around educational debt. I wanted those of us with debt to see a path to prosperity. I was also looking forward to the next fights over capital and debt. Should housing be “debt free”? Should healthcare be “debt free”. I never intended for “debt free” to be the framework for talking about the next generation of students to attend college. The next generation of college students needs an entirely different framework for talking about college access.

I know that college access and affordability is one of the hottest topics right now. That’s a good thing. But it’s also a dangerous thing because it leads folks running for office to use poll tested phrases and floats solutions that sometimes create more harm than good.

  1. College should be tuition-free for everyone. The fundamental flaw with the United States model for higher education is that it’s a gift from parents to children- a tax-free gift at that. What happens is that folks who can write a check for their children’s college end up making a huge wealth transfer from one generation to another. We can fix this by getting rid of the tuition based model for all public and private ( non-profit and for-profit colleges).
  2. Everyone who goes to college should pay for it when they start working. Straight up free college for everyone would be ideal but let’s talk about what’s more feasible. Everyone who goes to college should have pay a 5%-10% higher education fee for ten to fifteen years after they complete college. This will cover both academic and housing fees. Check out the Australian Higher Education Contribution Scheme for a model that’s been successful at opening up college access.
  3. Tax parents who want to pay for their children’s college. Right now, children who don’t come from wealth are paying a penalty for that via student loans. What if we flipped it and said that college should not be generational wealth transfer? What if we taxed paying for college at gift tax levels? Would this encourage folks of means to open up college access to all?
  4. This isn’t about “data”, it’s about “values”. Be wary of the folks who privatized the K-12 education space inserting themselves into the higher education space. We don’t need any more data on higher education. We need values. We need the values to say that any one attending high school in the United States should be able to attend college without having to pay a front end fee or take out loans. We need to want to go all in to support a vision of America where anyone who’s willing to spend time studying will have access to the best school for them.
  5. This needs to be a universal, not a means tested program. The right wing in America is working to destroy all means tested programs. So let’s be clear- the only way we will succeed on higher education justice is to create a universal program for all students.

College is amazing — and let’s be clear “college” means any post-secondary program from career technical training to the art history major. We need everyone all hands on deck to take away the economic burden of college costs and make it a universal program so everyone has a path to prosperity.

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