The proposal of "free college" sparks debate

Photo provided by Associated Press.

In January of his senior year, Sean Wells opened the letter he received from his top college, the University of Virginia. Excited, he called his parents and told them that he got accepted into its honors program.

Then, the other work began - how to pay for it. The future Cavalier has received approximately $3,500 in a scholarships, but he will still have to take out at least $10,000 in student loans to cover the estimated $15,000 it takes to attend. And that’s just for his first year.

“I am taking out the whole loan and paying it back monthly,” Wells said. “It’s cheaper that way.”

As the cost of tuition rises, many students find themselves concerned about drowning in an ocean of student loan debt. According to presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, student debt in the U.S., which has grown to more than $1.2 trillion.

Recently, Clinton announced a proposal for what she calls a “debt-free” future and eliminate tuition for working families. According to her site, Clinton is suggesting several steps including allowing people to enroll in income-based repayment plans, offering debt relief for people starting a business or as a reward for those going into public service such as AmeriCorps and teachers in high-need subjects. Clinton’s plan targets those who have an average yearly income of $125,000 or less, which is more than 80 percent of families according to Clinton’s site. She also plans to make four-year public colleges or universities tuition free for families making $85,000 a year or less.

While some agree with Clinton’s idea of freeing students from debt and lowering tuition, they disagree with how to approach it.

“It is beyond the reach of many families as is,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “And I think it is becoming this terrifying reality for so many people that they’ll need to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to go to college.”

How to pay for tuition, room and board is a concern for Gloria Olea, a recent Warwick High graduate who plans to attend the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg in the fall. She said her parents are taking on the responsibility of college costs, which is about $36,000 for the school year.

“College is kind of a financial burden on my parents and on myself in the end,” she said. “There’s stuff we can’t spend money on any more because my parents are letting me go to such a great school, but it’s just so expensive.”

Wells, who will be attending U.Va., said he supports lowering college tuition and fees and increasing government subsidies for people in need, but he doesn’t support Clinton’s plan of a “free”college. Wells thinks that free tuition will make some people take the education for granted and they will only go to college  because their parents will make them.

“If you make college free, college just becomes high school Part Two,” Wells said.

While some may not support the idea of free college, making it affordable should be a priority, Nassirian said.

“When it comes to the idea of free college, I can absolutely see why it is resonating because free is within everybody’s price range,” Nassirian said. “But the fact is that when you politically set the price at zero, that doesn't mean that college doesn't cost money. What you're doing is saying that the student and the family’s share is zero.”

While college becomes free for the family, the money does have to be paid by someone, and many typically look at that ‘someone’ as the government, according to Nassirian.

“We need to be worried about items being offered for free that actually cost a lot of money,” said Nassirian.

Oregon created the program “Oregon Promise” to help students avoid or lessen the amount of debt they take on. Oregon Promise receives funding from the state and is helping about 9,800 people by covering some or most of their college tuition, according to Bob Brew, Oregon Promise deputy executive director. Roughly 10% of those students wouldn't have been able to receive a higher education without the help of the Oregon Promise, he said.

“As the cost of college has gone up, a lot of students were kind of being shut out because they couldn't afford it,” Brew said. “That was low-income students but also middle-income students. Their families made too much to qualify for financial aid, but they didn’t make enough to pay for college, so they were having to either not go to college or borrow a lot of money to do it.”