In January 2015, I wrote an op-ed for The Tribune in response to President Obama's free community college proposal. The free college movement has since evolved and was championed by the Democratic presidential candidates, but the election of Donald Trump warrants a reassessment of the free college movement and a reprioritization of the democratic purpose of public higher education.
So what is the future of free college, and why does it matter? I want to make two critical points. First, the election outcome suggests that a federal policy on free college is very unlikely, elevating the importance and role of state and local polices to improve college affordability. Second, the crude and uncivilized presidential campaign rhetoric and behavior, coupled with the dismal voter turnout rate of approximately 55 percent, are an assault to our civic duties and social contract; they are a failure of our postsecondary education system, and we can and must do better as a nation and a democracy. Let me expand on both points.
For the average American, the price of college is simply out of reach, and the disinvestment of state funds in public higher education has directly contributed to this. In 1990, states paid about 75 percent of the cost of public college while students and families kicked in the other 25 percent in tuition and fees. By 2015, the state proportion decreased to 50 percent and students and families now pay the other 50 percent in tuition and fees. This disproportionately affects low-income families, as evidenced by the 30 percent gap in college enrollment between the highest and lowest income groups. Decades of research shows that the price of college is a significant barrier to college entry, and despite the vast availability of student loans, low-income students are extremely loan averse.