Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Who will free college actually benefit?

Julia Gagnon

Free college was a highly contested topic in this election, inciting young voters to make their way to the polls and vote in favor of the candidate who understands the fears and struggles that accompany loans and seemingly insurmountable debt. Social justice cries can be heard across college campuses as students are fighting to make their voices heard.

Free college even made it to the general election stage as Hillary Clinton proposed a college plan that would provide free tuition for the first two years of community college and a debt-free public college education. While these goals are noble and important in confronting a higher education system that has turned education into a market, it is also necessary to understand who these free college plans would actually benefit.

In order to benefit from free college, a student must be in a position to actually attend an institution of higher learning. Research shows that in 2012, fifty-eight percent of the college population consisted of white students aged 18-24, a demographic that is represented the most in higher education. Conversely, Hispanic students only constitute nineteen percent of this demographic and African-American students only fourteen percent. The disparity of representation in higher education is representative of a system structured to advantage white students.

However, the barrier to education does not only exist in access to higher education. African-American students are fifteen percent less likely to graduate high school than white students and Hispanic students are eleven percent less likely. This rate is even lower for students with disabilities, their graduation rate is sixty-three percent. Students from disadvantaged communities or oppressed groups face educational barriers before they even enter high school. 

Low-income, segregated communities are not allocated the same resources and advantages that high-income, predominantly white communities are afforded. Factors such as lead poisoning found in older, non-renovated housing communities, pose harm to a child development and have been proven to lower future test scores. If a child’s socioeconomic status has determined their future academic performance before they have even reached elementary school, then how is free college going to help improve their access to education?

Similarly, excessive discipline in elementary and secondary school disproportionately targets Hispanic and African-American students, as well as students with disabilities. Exclusionary discipline tactics increase dropout rates among students and further widen the racial achievement gap. 

Free college is an important part of increasing the economic power of college students and dissolving the consumer model of education; however it is important to understand who it will really be benefiting. If the goal of free college is to increase access to higher education, then it will mainly do so for one demographic: white students who will be able to take out fewer loans. But if higher education is to be made accessible to the entire United States population, then policymakers must look further into the root causes of racism and classism that is inherently threaded into the fabric of our educational system.

Julia Gagnon is a sophomore in the School of Public Affairs and a columnist for The Eagle.

Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.