With a new administration taking control of the White House and Democrats controlling Congress for the first time in a decade, it is now time for President Joe Biden to tackle the biggest threat to young Americans: the cost of college.
Total student loan debt topped $1.6 trillion in 2020, and the problem will only continue to grow. College represents an opportunity to expand horizons, or more realistically, to secure a job. But earning that opportunity is frequently reserved for the wealthiest Americans as the cost of college tuition continues to soar. But his administration has the power to stop student debt from entirely getting out of control by making public colleges and universities free.
Biden has already made commitments to address the student debt crisis. In one of his first moves after being sworn in, Biden extended the freeze on student loan payments. On the campaign trail, he vowed to make the student debt crisis a national priority and showed unsteady support for potentially forgiving up to $10,000 in student loans. He also joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in pledging to make public colleges free for students whose family incomes are below $125,000 each year.
Making college free is a good idea, but it should not be limited by a family’s income level. Biden should support legislation to make public college free for all students and put an end to the student loan crisis.
While college is meant to provide greater opportunity, the cost of college has continued to rise exorbitantly, and the median income of college graduates is stagnant. If college no longer opens doors for students and creates economic opportunities, it should not continue to cost more each year. But the rising cost of college has made it impossible for students to believe in a future where they can purchase a home, live comfortably or start families, because they know they will be burdened with student debt.
Student debt does not only affect post-graduate plans, it has an immediate effect on students. About 40 percent of college students struggle with hunger and housing because of student loans, and 17 percent have dealt with homelessness. The reality is that student loans prevent students from reaching their educational and professional potential. The Biden administration will have the chance to help students by ending the burden of student loans at public colleges.
Public universities should not charge tens of thousands of dollars each semester for tuition, just to have students struggle to make ends meet. The average student spends 20 years repaying student debt, but the problem does not have to continue. Making higher education free would be no different than funding primary and secondary education. It would make our population better educated and allow our students to focus on the classroom instead of their next paycheck.
Free public education is not perfect, but it’s a necessary start to tackle this crisis. For one, students at private schools, like GW, would still be expected to pay the cost of tuition set by the school. But if public schools are free and an option, private schools may have to offer additional aid or lower tuition costs in order to entice students to attend. While this has the potential to deepen the already present class divides at private universities, it is better than the current system of hiking the cost every year.
In the current system, students who cannot afford to attend college are more likely to choose not to attend college, even if they are qualified and willing to learn. A system that shuts out qualified students is a broken system, and it should be reformed. Making college tuition free for all public university students would allow qualified students to attend college without worrying about the cost. And if GW lowered its tuition as a result, it could help people who long dreamt of attending the University afford to go. While Biden’s plan would address this issue for some students, capping the benefits at family incomes of $125,000 is not enough.
If the policy is limited by the income level of recipients, it would not take into account geographical differences in wealth and could be littered with inaccuracies. Preventing someone too wealthy from receiving benefits is not worth installing an inefficient and bureaucratic system to determine eligibility. Anyone who has applied for financial aid in the past knows that getting the right benefits is already difficult, and a universal free college system would make it easier for students. It would also surely curb class divides present in private universities like GW by forcing them to set more equitable price tags.
Student loan debt is burdensome for current and former students, and it prevents college graduates from the future they deserve. The Biden administration should take immediate action by proposing legislation to eliminate the cost of public universities.
Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a senior majoring in political science and psychology, is the managing director and former opinions editor.
This article appeared in the January 21, 2021 issue of the Hatchet.