The Student Debt Crisis and The Push For Free College

Sam Gluck, Staff Writer

Jaclyn grew up in a working class Latinx family; none of her family had attended college. She dreamed of attending college and becoming an attorney. When she finally graduated, her parents could not afford to pay for tuition. Even though she qualified for a partial scholarship, she still had to take out a loan to finance the majority of her education. On top of that student loan, she had to take out another loan to finance her books and living expenses. After graduating, she had to take money from her grandma’s savings to prevent her loans from defaulting. Then, she had to get 2 jobs and work 14 hours a day on weekdays and work on the weekends in order to pay for living expenses and pay off her loans . She paid $1200/month on her student loans alone, just under half her monthly income and over half if you include other loans. This is an experience that plagues the working class who want to receive a higher education. This current college tuition system needs to be abolished if we want all kids to have equal opportunities in education. Making public college free would make college more accessible for many Americans, and would prevent people from having to go through similar experiences to Jaclyn.  

The cost of college, and student debt with it, has been increasing exponentially in the past years. 30-40 years ago, college was a much more accessible option for many ordinary people. However, over the past few decades the cost of college tuition has more than doubled, “since 1988, the cost of a college education has increased by 163%” (National Debt Relief). Currently, you see many working families collectively struggling to send a child to college. We have moved far beyond a point where one could send themselves to college with a minimum wage job outside of school: “This means that for a student to work through college, he or she would have to work 2,229 hours to pay for one year of the average college tuition” (National Debt Relief). This is a result of two main factors, the minimum wage and the price of college tuition. The minimum wage has been stagnant since 2009. Not rising with inflation means that workers currently receive less value for their work than they did 12 years ago. The cost of college tuition has done the opposite, its prices have increased greatly. College tuition costs have grown far past what they would be when adjusted for inflation. Both these things work to put college out of the reach of America’s working class. This leaves them with two main options: they either don’t go to college, which would bar them from many desirable career options, or they take on a student loan.

When students take on large amounts of student debt it can consume their post-college lives. Students get thrown into a financial hole before they have any real-world financial experience, especially so for people coming from lower income backgrounds: “The burden is borne by those who have little credit history and who are trying to enter a somewhat unpredictable and still-recovering job market… Allowing unproven borrowers to amass such debt along with strict repayment conditions is a formula for financial instability” (“High Levels of Student Debt”). All of a sudden, the choice that these kids and their families made in order to improve their lives financially and to give them more stability, becomes another cause of financial instability. When debt consumes people’s lives they are not able to use their education for bettering themselves or their community. What it will do is fill their lives with financial anxiety: “Studies have shown that debt takes a severe toll on the mental health of borrowers, causing stress. Side effects of financial stress include reduced productivity in the workplace and poor judgment” (High Levels of Student Debt). This can do a lot of damage to a person’s well being, and it is not fair to dump that on working class students. Students should not have to face these big consequences just for pursuing higher education. Going to college should improve your life outside of school. Student debt should not threaten your well being after graduating college.

Student debt also has negative effects on the economy as a whole. This is a direct result of student debt not allowing individuals to work and function to the best of their ability. We rely on young educated people to be the next generation of entrepreneurs, engineers, scientists, etc., “Additionally, debt obligations may steer potential entrepreneurs away from the risk inherent in starting successful ventures. Such startups are integral to creating jobs and wealth across the economy” (High Levels of Student debt). It should be the goal of society to produce jobs that aren’t just a means for people to survive and pay off their debt. We should be working away from this, not just accepting this for what it is. If going to college and consequently having overwhelming student debt puts people into this situation, it will discourage them from seeking higher education. When people become discouraged from going to college that adds to the problem even more. As this continues our economy will fall behind that of the rest of the world: “The nation’s economy demands that workers possess increasing levels of knowledge, skills, and abilities that are best acquired through postsecondary education. Without workers who have the right foundations, the United States will lose ground to countries that have prepared better for the demands of the 21st century workforce and, ultimately, the United States economy and security will be jeopardized” (Bergeron). The only way to meet this goal of having an educated workforce is to make sure college is more easily accessible for the average American. The record high tuition costs along with student loans that act as a vice to graduates, is doing anything but that. The system needs to be changed, and making public college tuition free would remove these problems. 

Making college tuition free would be a big step towards educational and occupational equality. We live in a country where the area you are born in and the color of your skin decides a lot about your future. The monumental price of college tuition is something that upholds that truth. Eliminating would give minorities and people from lower income backgrounds a much better shot at a comfortable life, “free college tuition programs have proved effective in helping mitigate the system’s current inequities by increasing college enrollment, lowering dependence on student loan debt and improving completion rates, especially among students of color and lower-income students who are often the first in their family to attend college”(Winograd). While we do have systems that offer assistance in achieving college education, they could never have the same impact that offering free public college education on a national scale would have. If anything these systems that are in place should offer more incentive to push for free college, seeing that it has the potential to change people’s lives for the better. It would continue to give people access to previously inaccessible opportunities past just an education, it would offer more security and comfort at the professional level, “wage inequality by education, already dreadful before the pandemic, is getting worse. In May, the unemployment rate among workers without a high school diploma was nearly triple the rate of workers with a bachelor’s degree” (Winograd). A large part of America’s job market is only accessible to those with college degrees. However, if you and your family’s income make college inaccessible for you, who are these jobs really inaccessible to: the uneducated or the non-wealthy?

America needs to provide people with access to higher education if they want to produce more intricate jobs. Having more scientists, doctors, engineers, etc.. in America is not only in our best interest to better society, it is becoming necessary, “today, the fastest growing sectors of the economy are in health care, computers and information technology. To have a real shot at a job in those sectors, workers need a college credential of some form such as an industry-recognized skills certificate or an associate’s or bachelor’s degree” (Winograd). Having more of these jobs benefits our country and its people. These jobs incentivise innovation in their respective sectors, that is how we advance and how we can help people lead better lives. We should be helping more people be in a place where they can pursue these lines of work. It also, in turn, would reduce the rate of unemployment in America: “Higher Education could help job-seekers earn more money and have a lower chance of being unemployed, according to data from TriNet, a human resources service provider” (Palmer). Unemployment can ruin peoples lives. It has the potential to lead to homelessness, food insecurity, no access to clean water, etc.. Minimizing these issues has the potential to save lives and could also save the government a lot of money in terms of funding unemployment benefits. The government should be doing everything they can to fix these problems, and free college could take on these issues at their roots. 

The concept of free college tuition is not a new concept in the world, and even in the United States. The United States offered free college in the past to veterans. This was part of a bill passed after WWII: “After World War II, the GI Bill gave free education to more than 2 million veterans, many of whom would otherwise never have been able to go to college. This benefited them, and it was good for the economy and the country, too. In fact, scholars say that this investment was a major reason for the high productivity and economic growth our nation enjoyed during the postwar years”  (Sanders). This bill was passed in an effort to make the job market more accessible for veterans. It worked in this manner, in that it not only resulted in much more jobs. It also resulted in an economic boom across the country. Seeing the success this resulted in, it would make sense for something similar to this but on a larger scale to be administered. Providing free college education to all citizens would be doing that. If we were to do this we would not be the first modern day country to provide free college tuition: “They’re free throughout Germany, too, and not just for Germans or Europeans but for international citizens as well. That’s why every year, more than 4,600 students leave the United States and enroll in German universities” (Sanders). Germany is an example of how free college is not out of reach. They knew the importance of higher education in order to produce the best doctors, scientists, engineers, architects, etc. that they could. United States citizens should have access to good college education domestically , not have to go to a foriegn country to avoid the high cost of American College. 

A lot of the money necessary for funding free college could be taken from programs already put in place to financially assist people with higher education. The U.S. government already has programs that work to make college more accessible for lower income families: “Consider, though, that in 2016 (the most recent year for which detailed expenditures are available), the federal government spent $91 billion on policies that subsidized college attendance. That is more than the $79 billion in total tuition and fee revenue for public institutions. At least some of the $91 billion could be shifted into making public institutions tuition-free” (New York Times). Investing this money into free college tuition would be a very effective way to get more people to attend college. On top of this, The government could still have a large budget to invest in public universities themselves to create better learning environments. The government also has programs set up to help students pay for college and their student debt: “Second, $41 billion in federal spending went toward aid for low-income students and military veterans, while $13 billion subsidized interest payments on student loans while students were enrolled in college. If tuition payments were eliminated, students at public colleges would have less need for these programs” (New York times). If we were to make college tuition free, eliminating the student loan, we would be able to essentially eliminate these programs. Free public colleges would also be able to reach significantly more low income families that these past programs set up to help students pay off their loans. Even with these programs many families cannot afford to send their children to college.

The government also has the option of defunding programs that have proven to be both non-beneficial to the majority of Americans and over funded, and redistribute the money to free public colleges. One sector of U.S. spending with more than enough funding for free college is the military and DOD: “The FY2020 measure provides $622.6 billion in base Department of Defense funding and $70.6 billion in OCO funding. The bill also includes $1.8 billion in emergency funding” (DOD website). Less than one-sixth of that budget could fund free public higher education, and we would still have the highest military budget of any country in the world by a significant amount. Free college is something that would work to directly improve the lives of many struggling Americans. The overfunded U.S. military is currently used as a method of fear-mongering and ravaging the middle east though unnecessary wars and drone strikes. Reallocating these funds could lead to a more educated American youth and hopefully more peaceful foreign relations. Another government program that’s funding would be doing more good if it went towards education is law enforcement. “In 2017, state and local governments spent $115 billion on police (4 percent of state and local direct general expenditures), $79 billion on corrections (3 percent), and $48 billion on courts (2 percent)”(Urban Institute). While funding for free college education would mainly have to come from a federal level, this money could be put towards improving the schools that would be made free to go to. Police tend to do little for the safety of low-income communities, they often harass people of color, and don’t actually do much to prevent crime.Where as giving people access to college has the potential to send them on to a well paying career, so that they would be less likely to resort to crime as a source of income. 

Another way the American government could get the money for free college would be an inheritance tax and eliminating inheritance tax loopholes. An inheritance tax is when the wealthy have to pay a tax on money they inherit from a relative’s estate. Though only affecting a small percentage of American citizens, it has the potential to create a lot of funds: “In 2008, for instance, the estate tax collected about $29 billion from fewer than 20,000 estates–the wealthiest 1% of the 2.5 million people who died that year” (Graetz). This would be a great way to not have to raise taxes for working class families and still be able to provide funding for free college education. It would still keep the majority of a person’s wealth within their family, while also giving a fairer chance to those who are not born into wealth. A concern with this tax is that there are too many ways people can avoid paying it. However this has a relatively easy solution: “Critics also argue the tax is easily avoided through crafty estate planning. I agree. Let’s tighten the loopholes so the super-wealthy pay their fair share” (Graetz). People should not be able to avoid paying a tax by using a trust or other bank resources that are at their disposal, especially if it would mean the difference of people receiving equal education. The inheritor would still receive a large majority of the estate, and it only affects people inheriting very large estates. If the money collected went toward free college education it could significantly improve the lives of many Americans.

The current system of college education in the U.S. is too flawed and is in need of a change. Free public college would eliminate the student debt crisis as well as make college accessible to low income students. It would produce a young and educated workforce which would boost the economy significantly. This system can be attained in many ways by the government, most of which would not be as costly as many think. The benefits of free college are far greater than the deficits, and it should be instituted in the United States.



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Criminal Justice Expenditures: Police, Corrections, and Courts.” Urban Institute, Accessed 17 Mar. 2021.

Deming, David. “Tuition-Free College Could Cost Less than You Think.” The New York Times, 19 July 2019, Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.

Graetz, Michael J. “Keep It; It’s Fair, and We Need the Revenue.” Wall Street Journal. ProQuest: SIRS Issues Researcher, Accessed 17 Mar. 2021.

High Levels of Student Debt Affect Many Parts of the Economy: Salt Lake Telegram.” Deseret News, Jul 29, 2014. ProQuest,

National Debt Relief. 17 June 2019, Accessed 9 Feb. 2021.

Palmer, Erin. “Study: Higher Education Leads to Lower Unemployment Rates and Higher Earning Potential.” Business Administration Information, 9 Sept. 2014, Accessed 11 Mar. 2021.

Quiles-Nohar, Jaclyn. “Untitled post.” Student Debt Crisis, 18 Mar. 2021, Accessed 23 Mar. 2021.

Sanders, Bernie. “Public College Should Be Free.” The Washington Post. Proquest SIRS Issue researcher. Accessed 24 Feb. 2021.

Winograd, Morley, and Max Lubin. “Tuition-Free College Is Critical to Our Economy.” Edsource, 2 Nov. 2020, Accessed 11 Mar. 2021.