Reimaging Student Loan Forgiveness: A Critical Analysis

As President Joe Biden introduced his Plan B for student loan forgiveness, the discussion around making some college education free was reignited. The move to make community college tuition-free in an effort to eliminate the need for loans was met with mixed reactions. While some experts argue that loan forgiveness is merely a temporary solution to the college affordability crisis, others believe that making college education free is a more sustainable approach. According to Ryan Morgan, CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, “Student loan forgiveness is a Band-Aid. It’s not a permanent solution but it’s certainly better than nothing.” However, critics have pointed out that loan forgiveness only benefits graduates with existing education debt and does not address the broader issue of rising college costs.

The Appeal of Free College

Contrary to loan forgiveness, free college education has the potential to appeal to a wider audience by removing the financial barrier to higher education. By making college tuition-free, individuals who are qualified and willing to pursue higher education can do so without the burden of tuition fees. Ryan Morgan highlights that free college is a bipartisan issue that could garner widespread support. Despite the Biden administration’s initial plans to make community college tuition-free for two years, the proposal was ultimately removed from the Build Back Better Act in 2021. In response, several states have taken the initiative to pass legislation to make college education more affordable.

Currently, 35 states have implemented some form of tuition-free college program, primarily in the form of “last-dollar” scholarships. These programs cover the remaining tuition and fees after other forms of financial aid have been applied. Critics argue that such programs may not effectively address access issues, as many lower-income students already pay minimal or no tuition due to existing grants and scholarships. Additionally, these programs often do not cover additional expenses such as fees, books, or room and board, which are crucial for financially disadvantaged students.

The Limitations of Community College

Despite the perception that community college serves as a gateway to a four-year degree, statistics reveal a different reality. Only 16% of community college students go on to attain a bachelor’s degree, highlighting the limitations of community college as a stepping stone to higher education. Moreover, the relatively lower cost of community college compared to four-year institutions does not necessarily translate to long-term savings, especially for students seeking to earn a bachelor’s degree. Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy, emphasizes the risks associated with assuming that community college is a cost-effective pathway to a four-year degree.

Among the state-based tuition-free programs, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act stands out as a comprehensive initiative that offers free college education to a diverse range of students. The program extends its benefits to returning adult learners, part-time students, immigrants regardless of immigration status, and recent high school graduates. By prioritizing accessibility and covering additional expenses such as books, room and board, and childcare, the New Mexico Opportunity Scholarship Act offers a holistic approach to making college education more affordable. Since its inception, the program has contributed to a 7% increase in overall college enrollment in the state, signaling a positive impact on student participation and engagement.

The debate over student loan forgiveness and free college education underscores the need for a critical examination of existing policies and initiatives. While loan forgiveness serves as a temporary solution to the immediate financial burdens of college graduates, free college education offers a more sustainable and inclusive approach to addressing the broader challenges of affordability and access. By analyzing the strengths and limitations of different programs, policymakers can tailor solutions that are comprehensive, equitable, and responsive to the evolving needs of students and higher education institutions.

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