Free College 101
Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

The push for free college is a recognition that the most well-traveled economic path to good jobs and the middle class requires at least some college for the vast majority of young Americans. It is also a response to the reality that many students and their families are taking on large amounts of debt to finance increasingly pricey postsecondary educations. In the past decade, tuition and fees have increased 35 percent at public four-year institutions and 23 percent at public two-year institutions. More than 43 million borrowers in the United States hold almost $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.

High school is no longer enough to prepare future generations for tomorrow’s jobs. Instead, at least two years of postsecondary education is necessary to secure a middle-class job in the modern US economy. Unfortunately, college has become expensive, with tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities growing 19 times faster than the median family income since 1980. The free-college movement can be seen as an attempt to return to a time when financial aid and government investment in higher education was substantial and enabled students to attend college without incurring significant financial burden or debt.

This report discusses the basic terminology of free college as well as some common questions about education finance and student financial aid.