Even as presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ plan to provide free public education draws increasing support and attention, many elite private schools have quietly begun providing a tuition-free college education to many students. Stanford led the charge last year in announcing that students whose families make less than $125,000 per year and have assets of less than $300,000 won’t have to pay for tuition, which typically runs to about $46,000 annually. Additionally, students whose families make less than $65,000 per year won’t have to pay for room and board either, which typically runs to another $14,100. The costs will instead be covered by scholarships and grants, while students will still be required to contribute about $5,000 annually from part-time work or savings.
In a press release at the time Provost John Etchemendy said, “Our highest priority is that Stanford remain affordable and accessible to the most talented students, regardless of their financial circumstances.” And with its large $21 million endowment, Stanford is well poised to achieve that goal.
Other elite private colleges with large endowments have also moved in recent years to provide tuition-free education to those of limited means. Princeton offers free tuition to students whose families make under $120,000 and free room and board to those whose families make under $60,000. Both Harvard and Yale eliminate tuition for families making less than $65,000 and require students whose families make under $150,000 to contribute no more than ten percent of the cost of tuition.
The ability of elite private colleges with their tremendous endowments to provide generous financial aid and free education to less wealthy students is a tremendous step forward towards the goal of equal opportunity education in the United States. Nonetheless, as the cost of college continues to skyrocket, most colleges remain prohibitively expensive to many Americans. Indeed some 70% of undergraduate graduate with student loan debt, which runs to an average of more than $29,000. This student loan debt has tripled over the last decade and a large percentage of graduates quickly fall behind on their student loan payments.
Beyond elite private colleges, governments have also begun to provide relief for poorer students seeking higher education. Tennessee and Oregon have started programs providing all high-school graduates free tuition at a two-year community college while the city of Chicago has launched a similar program covering all costs of community college for high school graduates who maintain a 3.0 GPA. And last year, legislation backed by President Obama was enacted to provide free community college to high-school graduates who maintain a 2.5 GPA.
While all of these programs and aid are certainly steps in the right direction, the ultimate goal should be Bernie Sanders’ proposal to provide tuition-free education for all at public colleges and universities, which would finally make higher education in the United States truly equal. Indeed the $69 billion annual total that the federal government currently spends on helping students cover the cost of college – both public and private – is larger than the total annual tuition paid at public universities.
Were the government to shift those expenditures towards simply covering the cost of public college, ambitious students from all backgrounds would be granted the opportunity of a quality education and all of the lifelong benefits that follow. Such a move would also put pressure on elite private colleges like Harvard and Stanford to expand financial aid programs and cut tuition costs, which have risen 13% over the past five years.