Free College Isn’t Really Free

By Anthony P. Carnevale

When higher education comes up, politicians talk about the price of college — and how they plan to reduce it. In some cases, they have gone so far as to propose making college free.

But what does “free college” mean?

There isn’t one answer. Free college has become a catch-all term for policies, programs, and proposals that address tuition-free higher education. Most apply to public colleges and universities, and many specifically to community colleges. There is also growing support for debt-free college, which goes beyond tuition-free college by covering other costs of attendance, including books and living expenses.

Despite their differences, the various proposals represent the movement to make college more affordable for students and their families. In the past decade, tuition and fees have risen 35 percent at public four-year colleges and 23 percent at public two-year colleges. More than 43 million borrowers in the United States hold almost $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. With this debt burden, young people don’t achieve financial independence until many years after graduating from college.

College has become a more common milestone even as it has become a growing financial burden for young people and their families. High school is no longer enough to prepare future generations for tomorrow’s jobs; in fact, the most well-traveled path to the middle class requires completing at least some higher education. As higher education started becoming pretty much the only ticket to the middle class, there has been talk of making it an affordable pathway for more Americans. Just how much higher education is necessary is what divides plans from Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, which address four years of tuition at public colleges, and those proposed by Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, which focus just on two years of tuition at community colleges.

No matter which plan wins, the reality is that “free college” isn’t really free. Tuition and other expenses may be reduced for students and their families, but that will leave taxpayers on the hook for growing educational expenses. Tax revenue would be transferred from people who don’t attend college to those who do, primarily from older and lower-income people to younger and higher-income people. Buttigieg claims to account for this transfer in his plan by limiting eligibility for free or reduced tuition to low- and middle-income students. By contrast, Warren and Sanders do not set income limits for eligibility for free tuition, though they contend that they would pay for their plans with taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

When taxpayers have a stake in higher education, more data on the many programs and institutions will be needed to ensure transparency and allow the government to hold higher education institutions accountable for students’ outcomes. The Obama and Trump administrations have made strides on the transparency front by publishing this type of data through the College Scorecard, but the current administration has moved backward on accountability.

Despite all that you hear about free college, few candidates have spoken up about transparency and accountability of higher education institutions. And it’s hard to imagine a future with free-college programs but no additional transparency and accountability measures.

To learn more, explore Free College 101, our new resource explaining free college terminology.


Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

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