At a welcome back event at Iowa State University in August, students filled the Great Hall in the Memorial Union. They walked past tables sponsored by campus clubs and local organizations offering every kind of free swag from can cozies to Frisbees to pizza. Many of the students were also aware of another offer that has been proposed by some Democratic candidates for president: free college tuition.
Veronica Morenas, a psychology student from Missouri, said coming from a single-parent home means she has to pay for college on her own.
“Which I totally understand but it also puts me in a place where I have to be really financially responsible,” said Morenas, who estimates she has close to $20,000 in student loans. But if tuition were free Morenas said she worries it would be harder to recruit top researchers to teach at ISU. “If they don’t get paid because I’m not paying a certain amount of tuition, it’s a double-edge sword.”
Jacob Wright, a senior agronomy student from Virginia, was also skeptical.
“Of course especially as a college student I’m not going to say I don’t want my college to be free, exactly,” Wright said. “But, I mean, it’s a large financial cost to the country and are the universities going to have to be more restrictive? Well, probably.”
But for Abraham Omar of Des Moines, free tuition signals greater opportunity.
“I hear not struggling to go to college and that anybody could go to college as long as they finish high school,” Omar said.
Americans have racked up nearly $1.5 trillion in student debt according to the New York Federal Reserve, an amount that has tripled in the last 15 years. As Democrats campaign across Iowa, many are offering voters ways to ease the burden of tuition and loans.
The proposals range from free tuition and cancelled student debt to discounted community college and debt forgiveness. At the top of the field, though, there is a distinct difference in how far candidates would go to make college more affordable.
The candidate driving the conversation on tuition and student debt is Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator often points out in campaign speeches that he was the first presidential candidate to propose free tuition, in the 2016 cycle.
“It’s not good enough to talk about K-12,” Sanders said at a recent rally at the University of Northern Iowa. “College should be available to all people, regardless of their income.”
Sanders would use federal funding to match state appropriations to public colleges 2-to-1, but only for those states that agree to eliminate tuition. That would add up to a big boost in government funding in a state like Iowa where the average cost of tuition and fees at public universities has gone up 40 percent since 2009 but state funding remains lower than it was before the recession.
But Bernie Sanders is no longer the only candidate backing the idea of free tuition. Former Housing Sec. Julian Castro supports it. Sen. Elizabeth Warren would cover two-thirds of the cost of public tuition with federal funding.
Several more candidates are proposing “debt-free” college, including Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Cory Booker and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg. That generally means families which are better-off financially would be expected to pay some portion of the cost of college.
Joe Biden, the current front-runner, does not go that far. The former vice president has put more emphasis on increasing federal funding for K-12 schools, but he does support free community college and job training. Biden has also said the government should provide 16 years of public education.
“Put every single qualified person in community college for free and/or trade school, cutting in half the cost of college,” Biden said at the Iowa State Fair.
Biden would also suspend student loan payments for low-income borrowers. But that’s more limited than what Sanders and Warren are proposing, which includes cancelling student debt.
“He believes that college students aren’t necessarily his base,” said Samantha Bayne, a Drake University student who has tracked what the candidates have proposed on education. “I think he would be surprised to learn how many college students are seriously considering Vice President Biden and yet are attracted to other candidates because of their focus on college students.”
Past the promise
The slogan of free tuition stands out at the top of the Democratic field. But the reality of what it would accomplish is more complicated.
“In campaigning, what’s the expression, you campaign in poetry and govern in prose,” said Robert Reason, a professor of higher education at Iowa State University. Reason added that free tuition would end up paying the way for many students who could afford college on their own. “One of the studies I recently read suggested that at least one-third if not half of the benefits go to families making about $120,000 a year or more. So we’re not increasing access much.”
The focus on making public college free also leaves out most students at private schools. Outside of colleges serving predominantly minority students, private colleges don’t play a role in Sanders’ or Warren’s plans.
“Why would our candidates want to take away some of that choice and basically say if you’re poor or low-income you need to go to a publicly-funded institution?” said Kent Henning, president of Grand View University in Des Moines which enrolls around 1,600 full-time students.
Henning said a higher percentage of students at private, non-profit colleges in Iowa are eligible for need-based federal Pell Grants than at the state universities. Free public tuition would make it hard to compete for those students.
“Up to this point our federal government has not necessarily told people what type of institution they should attend for their college education," he said. "This would be a major shift to all of a sudden favor one sector over another as opposed to supporting needy students.”
Private schools also play a significant role in student debt in the U.S. The majority of student loans taken out each year are for private colleges, according to Nick Hillman, a higher education researcher at the University of Wisconsin.
“So what’s odd is that private institutions are left out of many of these discussions, but yet they are the tail that wags the dog in many cases,” Hillman said. The cost of graduate school and non-tuition costs like housing and child care are also big drivers of student debt, Hillman said, but receive relatively little attention from candidates.
Making college affordable is more complicated than providing free tuition, Hillman said, but the message is likely to resonate with college graduates and younger voters who are a growing share of the electorate. Millennials are nearly as large a voting bloc as Baby Boomers.
Turnout for young voters is lower than for older generations, but in 2008 the youth vote surged for Barack Obama. Candidates like Bernie Sanders are trying to recreate that moment. At his rally at UNI, Sanders called on students in the crowd to recruit their peers.
“You tell those friends of yours and I know they’re all out there, that if they’re worried about the high cost of college, if they’re worried about the low wages that they’re making, if they’re worried about climate change, stop complaining and get involved in the political process,” Sanders said.
Sanders is showing up on campuses, talking about free tuition and hoping to draw young voters into his corner on caucus night.