A Blueprint for College Without Debt: A Policy and Messaging Guide for States to Make Higher Education Affordable Again

This post originally appeared on www.demos.org

By Mark Huelsman | September 26, 2018

In the past several years, the movement for tuition-free, debt-free, or otherwise affordable college has swept the country. As of 2018, 16 states and dozens of cities have launched “Promise Programs,” initiatives that in most cases cover tuition and fees for students, primarily at community colleges.1 These programs are operating within a national debate about the role of the federal government, states, and institutions in guaranteeing that all American citizens have access to affordable, high-quality postsecondary education, regardless of their race or family wealth.

A promise of “free” or “debt-free” college is galvanizing, but it can take many forms and include any number of policy mechanisms. It can be guaranteed for only certain students, certain majors, or certain institutions. It can include only tuition, or it can consider non-tuition costs as well. It can come with an asterisk noting what students must do after they leave school, or it can include requirements that provide subsidy toward only “high-performing students.” At a time in which some state budgets have still not recovered fully from the Great Recession, states may decide to ration these programs in one way or another. Without discussion of which components would make a program more regressive, less inclusive, or less impactful, states run the risk of fulfilling the promise of affordable college for only a small subset of students.

This policy blueprint seeks to inform this exciting debate by bringing new data on the urgency of the student debt crisis, particularly for borrowers of color, while outlining the policy mechanisms that are often considered in Promise Programs and free college proposals, and determining which are most important in creating an equitable guarantee for students. Finally, we share recommendations from a series of focus groups, message testing, and a national poll conducted by Lake Research on the best ways to talk about the issue, and the necessity and benefits of boldness.

Read the full report on the Demos website here.

Download the full report here.

Mark Huelsman is the Associate Director of Policy and Research at Demos.

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