Higher education is widely seen as a pathway to a better life. Over the last three decades, and especially since the Great Recession, a college degree has become more and more essential to our economic survival. 99.1% of the 11.6 million jobs created during the economic recovery went to people with at least some postsecondary education.
Yet, universities have a long history of shutting their doors to all but the most privileged. People of color, women and religious minorities have fought – and won – legal access to higher education, but this has not translated to equal access to opportunity. As a college education becomes ever more necessary, states are slashing public education spending, tuition is skyrocketing and institutions of higher education are dedicated to padding the pockets of the executives who control America’s private sector instead of educating students. In the past 30 years, tuition has gone up by 310% at public universities and 243% at community colleges. While in 1980, roughly 60% of university funding came from state governments, by 2015, state funding had fallen to an average of 12% of university budgets, with students and families paying an increasing share of expenses. In 2018, America’s collective student loan debt surpassed $1.5 trillion, which keeps former students and their families from seeing the economic prosperity promised by their education. Unsurprisingly, the burden of debt is disproportionately held by people of color and women, which makes it even harder to close income gaps.
The data is clear: today’s higher education system is bowing under the stress of profit-driven decision making at the top. We must re-calibrate the system around the purpose of educating students before it comes crashing down on top of the next generation of our nation’s leaders.
Education is a Right
We affirm that education is a human right, not a commodity. Quality education, like safe and affordable housing or food security, allows us to explore and shape our own lives, and all people deserve this autonomy. Free College for All means that everyone shares equal, open access to education without exception. It means that governments are responsible for providing quality education, and can be held accountable when the right to education is violated.
- Policy Criteria
- Fully include people of all income levels, geographies, citizenship statuses, races, genders, gender identities, sexual orientations, (dis)abilities, criminal records, or incarceration statuses
- Specifically, we will not accept any policy that fails to meet the needs of Black, indigenous, and students of color, undocumented students, first generation college students, poor and working class students, disabled students, trans, non-binary, and queer students, students with past criminal convictions, incarcerated students, working students, and non-traditional and parenting students
- Given their exclusion from many past and current policies, we specifically highlight the full inclusion of undocumented students and formerly or currently incarcerated students
Free Means Free
If the right to education is to be exercised fully and freely, the burden of the cost of education must not be placed on students and their families. This includes not only the cost of classroom instruction, but also the cost of living while attending school. Classroom instruction costs may include tuition, books, classroom technology, and administrative fees. Cost of living expenses may include housing, dining, transportation, and health care.
- Policy Criteria
- Meets the needs of and fully includes first generation students, commuter students, part-time students, rural students, student who are parenting, working students, and students with disabilities
- Provide first-dollar funding to students from day one
- Does not require students to borrow or incur debt at any point during their enrollment
Relieving Student Debt
A just transition to free higher education must address the crisis of student loan debt. Just as lack of resources should not prevent anyone from pursuing higher education, previously incurred student loan debt should not prevent former students from building a firm financial foundation for their future life and career path. Student borrowers have been a captive market for industries which profit from loans and debt. No one should profit from student debt, and existing student loan debt must be relieved.
Inclusion of Private Colleges and Universities
We reject a system in which private universities are only accessible to the richest families and in which they are free to continue raising the burden of tuition without constraint. Private not for profit institutions must be held to standards that promote education as a right, through policies such as need-blind admission and debt-free education, in order to ensure quality education is accessible for students at public and private schools. Education is a human right, not an arena of profit for corporations and the one percent.
Fully & Fairly Funding Higher Education
In order to ensure that the cost of higher education is not repackaged and handed back down to students and families, fair sources of revenue must be instated. An equitable free college policy would include revenue sources primarily funded by corporations and the wealthy, who must pay their fair share back into our communities. Banning practices that allow corporations to evade taxes—such as stashing corporate profits in offshore accounts—would provide billions in new revenue to fund education. Other progressive revenue options could include closing corporate tax loopholes, imposing a financial transaction tax, strengthening the estate tax, or instituting a small wealth tax.
First-dollar funding — financial aid that is awarded independently of a student’s other sources of income or aid.
Last-dollar funding — financial aid that is awarded based on the gap between a student’s ability to pay (personal/family income, other financial aid and scholarships) and the cost of higher education.
Debt-free higher education — policy platform based around the idea that no one should have to go into debt (i.e. take out loans) in order to access higher education. Debt-free models differ from free higher education models in that they assume education as a commodity rather than a right, and that most students and families will carry part of the cost burden of higher education.