It's no secret that college is becoming increasingly unaffordable nationwide. Just check out this dizzying student loan debt counter. Thousands of dollars are added every second, leading to an almost $1.5 trillion debt in the name of higher education.
"The reality is, college is more important now than it ever has been in the past, but it's also getting more and more unaffordable," Institute for College Access & Success Vice President Debbie Cochrane told VICE Impact. "One of the biggest factors is the level of support states are providing to their public institutions. Students are charged tuition because the state isn't picking up the full share of the cost of educating students. And over time, the share of the cost that they're picking up has gotten smaller and smaller. That means more of the cost is being pushed onto students and families through tuition."
You've heard the line before: alleviate the financial burden of college, decrease student debt, help out the national economy and help out students. But it may be more complicated than it sounds. A series of false starts at the federal level (President Obama tried to make free community college a thing in 2015, and Bernie and Hillary both had their own "free college" planks in the 2016 race) paired with rollbacks to federal student aid and loan forgiveness programs under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, have a national solution looking further away than ever.
But while Washington D.C. has been hitting snooze on higher-ed, state legislators have been hard at work developing creative programs to pump the breaks on student debt and increase accessibility to postsecondary programs.
Some states like New York have gone big, with ambitious programs that promise free access to a college degree. Roughly 80 percent of New York State families are expected to qualify for Governor Cuomo's Excelsior Scholarship program, which offers full-time tuition coverage at any two or four-year state university or college.
While large-scale programs like offer big promises, they also come with some serious legislative loopholes that may bar accessibility to the people most in need of financial aid.
California's proposed Degrees Not Debt Scholarship is poised to go even further, picking up the slack left after Pell Grants and tuition scholarships to cover the hefty burden of books, housing, food, and other essentials in addition to remaining tuition and fee balances. This is a big deal, since these costs often add up to more than twice the actual cost of tuition and can serve as a serious financial deterrent for prospective students.
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But while large-scale programs like these offer big promises, they also come with some serious legislative loopholes that may bar accessibility to the people most in need of financial aid. Both of these programs include work or attendance requirements that may exclude non-traditional students, as well as other footnotes that may fail to look outside of a traditional middle-class reality.
"On any sort of policy, the fine print is important. Many of the proposals that have been enacted or that are being discussed, include fine print that will keep the students who most need help paying for college from benefiting," Cochrane said. "States aren't really looking for a way to hold themselves accountable..They're looking for ways to make a marketing pitch around the availability and affordability of college."
Luckily, "free college" doesn't have to mean an expensive, all-inclusive, four-year degree.
Tennessee and Oregon have each launched successful tuition-free community college programs, which have made associate's degrees and other two-year certifications available to thousands of students, with a lower pay point for taxpayers. Tennessee also upped their college game by becoming the first state to say, "hello, second career" through free community college for adults without a college diploma.
READ MORE: The Rocky Road to Free College
Rhode Island also joined the free community college club this year, after a more comprehensive (and more expensive) free college bill was whittled down in the state legislature.
Other states have shifted their focus to occupational training programs to give a boost to in-demand technical fields.
The good people of Minnesota and Kentucky can thank state programs for an upswing in computer technicians, welders, and automotive specialists now that full-ride coverage is available for training in much-needed fields. Arkansas also offers grant-based training coverage on a limited basis.
To find out more about free post-secondary education opportunities near you, make a call to your state's Department of Education. Nothing nearby? Take your concerns to the statehouse through phone or email. Let your representatives know that affordable, accessible higher education should be a legislative priority. And while you're at it let your feelings be known about potential slashes to Pell Grant funding and other education initiatives before greater cuts are made at the federal level.