How Far to free?
How Far to free?
By Strike Debt /

[Updated October 17, 2014]

How much would it cost to make every public two- and four-year college and university in the United States tuition-free for all students?  Much less than you think.

According to our estimate, after stripping off the amount that the government already spends to subsidize higher education — including at predatory for-profit institutions — the total amount of new money necessary would be as little as $15 billion a year.  Fifteen billion is a lot of money, to be sure, but within the scope of the federal budget it is a fraction of one percent of yearly spending — merely a rounding error.

Here’s how we arrived at that astonishing figure.

In the 2012-2013 academic year, students spent $61.8 billion on tuition for public colleges and universities (source, page 7).  That’s our starting point.  But, as we said above, the government is already subsidizing that figure via various programs which would no longer be needed if tuition were simply free.  Additionally, predatory for-profit colleges receive billions in federal subsidies which simply channel taxpayer money straight into the pockets of Wall Street investors while saddling students with worthless degrees and a crushing debt load.

In 2012-2013 the government spent $32.3 billion in Pell Grants (source, page 3).  How much of that went to shady for-profit schools?  As much as 21% — more than $6.7 billion (source, table 18) — and a large chunk was swallowed up by Corinthian Colleges, the notorious institution now being sued by the CFPB, SEC, and numerous state attorneys-general for its predatory practices.  In addition, for-profit schools (Corinthian foremost among them [source, page 4]) specifically target veterans for enrollment, and so they took in roughly $1.7 billion in GI Bill monies in 2012-2013 (source, page i).

There is no reason to squander even a penny of public money on these fraudulent operations.  These combined savings would amount to $8.4 billion, which, subtracted from that $61.8 billion figure above, would give us a remaining cost of $53.4 billion for 2012-2013.

But that’s not all.  Bob Samuels, in his exhaustive research on public education financing, identifies tens of billions in additional savings from current subsidies and tax exemptions:

  • student loan interest rate exemption: $1.7 billion (source, page 207)
  • exclusion of employer-provided educational assistance: $0.8 billion (ibid.)
  • exclusion of interest on student-loan bonds: $0.6 billion (ibid.)
  • exclusion of scholarship and fellowship income: $3 billion (ibid.)
  • exclusion of tax on earnings of qualified tuition programs including savings account programs: $1.8 billion (ibid.)
  • Lifetime Learning tax credit: $1.7 billion (ibid.)
  • parental personal exemption for students age 19 or over: $5.3 billion (ibid.)
  • state prepaid tuition plans: $1.8 billion (source)
  • American Opportunity Tax Credit (which is set to expire in Dec 2017): $21.7 billion (source)


So, in the final accounting:

  • $38.4 billion in tax expenditures
  • $6.7 billion in Pell Grants to for-profit schools
  • $1.7 billion in GI Bill money to for-profit schools

TOTAL SAVINGS = $46.8 billion.

This means that tuition-free education at all public two- and four-year colleges could be achieved for just $15 billion in new spending.  The outcome would be a drastic reduction in the vast student debt burden (approaching $1.3 trillion) — the single most significant step we could take to minimize the scale of the crisis.

Some will say this is a utopian proposition.  But virtually every other industrialized nation (and many a developing country) has managed to offer free public higher education for decades.  Even in this era of fiscal austerity, governments in countries as disparate as Germany and Chile have recently announced they are eliminating tuition costs altogether.  In the U.S. we cannot continue to mortgage the lifetime earnings of students without severely limiting their opportunities and damaging the fabric of our democratic life.

When you hear elected officials and political interest groups agonizing over the intractability of the student debt crisis, while protecting a status quo that funnels money to Wall Street banks and other higher ed profiteers, ask them where their priorities really are.

$15 billion is no more than a line item in the military budget — a 2011 GAO audit found $70 billion had been wasted by the Defence Department in just two years.  $15 billion is also much less money than the federal government currently spends on an array of pointless programs.  For example, the discredited War on Drugs is costing U.S. taxpayers $51 billion per year, much of which comes from state budgets that have drastically cut state appropriations for higher education.  Redirecting this worthless funding stream into a free education system would restore some credibility to the nation’s fiscal priorities.The “Robin Hood Tax,” a proposal to impose a less than ½ of 1% tax on Wall Street transactions, could generate an estimated $300 billion a year.  Those billions, which currently line the pockets of bankers and hedge fund managers, could be used to pay off all existing student debt in about four years.

Federal tax subsidies for corporations add up to $100 billion per year in uncollected taxes (source).  Ensuring that companies pay their fair share of taxation could guarantee fair labor conditions for the 1.3 million contingent faculty members — over 75% of the university teaching force — who make an average salary of $25,000 per year.  Doubling their salaries to match the current median pay for a full-time professor would still only cost $61.75 billion per year (source, page 6).

These are only a handful of alternative funding sources.  If you look around, you’ll have little trouble locating that $15 billion — a small price to pay for the universal, tuition-free public higher education that more and more of the world’s citizenry are demanding of twenty-first century democracies.

It’s simply a matter of priorities.


Researchers interested in learning more are encouraged to read Bob Samuels’ 2013 book, Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, as well as Mike Konczal’s article, “Could We Redirect Tax Subsidies to Pay for Free College?

0.0 ·
What's Next
Trending Today
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 19,800 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
Dinosaur explains Trump policies better than Trump!
8 min · 12,152 views today · Donald Trump is actually the corporate triceratops, Mr. Richfield, from the 90's TV show sitcom, "Dinosaurs". 
No Moral Superpower: Arundhati Roy, Edward Snowden, and the Crimes of Empire
Jake Johnson · 8,023 views today · When Arundhati Roy was preparing, in 2014, for a trip to Moscow to meet Edward Snowden, she was troubled by two things. One of them was the fact that the meeting was arranged...
Noam Chomsky Has 'Never Seen Anything Like This'
Chris Hedges · 6,580 views today · Noam Chomsky is America’s greatest intellectual. His massive body of work, which includes nearly 100 books, has for decades deflated and exposed the lies of the power elite...
And After the Election, The Reaction
Ret Marut · 4,748 views today · Could there be any better illustration of the shortcomings of representative democracy than this year’s Presidential campaign? For months upon tiresome months, the whole world...
'The Climate of Fear Is Unacceptable' - Ken Loach on I, Daniel Blake
6 min · 3,873 views today · Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning film I, Daniel Blake tells the story of a man who is denied disability benefit after a heart attack and who is then subsequently caught in a...
Men Loving Men
Bianca Vivion · 2,677 views today · When my father was seven he and his best friend Phil cut their index fingers open and placed them together to create a “blood pact” that they would always be brothers. To this...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 2,232 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Three Massive Mergers - Millions for One Bank and a Disaster for Food, Water, and Climate
Wenonah Hauter · 2,191 views today · In addition to advising on all three mega-mergers, Credit Suisse is playing a big role behind the scenes of the Dakota Access pipeline.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 2,083 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Writers Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein Talk About Journalism and Activism
27 min · 1,755 views today · Author, Activist and Former California State Senator Tom Hayden talks in depth with the author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein, about the state of the fourth...
Social Geographer Shows How Much of You is Determined by Where You're From
3 min · 1,542 views today · The Professor of Geography examines social inequality and the geodemographics of the UK, using maps created by Oliver O'Brien (UCL, CASA) in 2012 and updated in 2015. You can...
Grow Heathrow: Residents Resisting Eviction Over 3rd Runway
4 min · 1,118 views today · On March 1st 2010 Transition Heathrow members swooped on an abandoned market garden site in Sipson; one of the villages to be completely tarmacked to make way for a third...
A Beautiful Reflection on What It Means to Be Human
8 min · 1,099 views today · Hello! We are Oh Wonder, a musical duo from London. We believe that everyone is equal. We are all human. We all deserve the world. And we can build that equality by sharing...
Heartbreaking Animation Reveals Plight of Animals Under Threat of Extinction
3 min · 1,021 views today · This stunning and heartbreaking animation gives voice to animals under threat from human activity. Made as part of the Wildlife Conservation Film Festival, it features a...
Speaking Out Against Australia's Unforgiving Refugee Policy
42 min · 898 views today · The Forgotten Children: More than a hundred child refugees are stuck in asylum limbo on the island of Nauru as a result of Australia's harsh and unsympathetic border policies...
How Big Banks Launder Money and Get Away With It
9 min · 745 views today · 'I wrote about how money laundering was actually done... they spiked it.' Parliamentary Candidate David Malone was a popular second choice in the UK Green Party leadership...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 730 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why I Didn't Vote Trump or Hillary
Joe Brewer · 619 views today ·   This is my ballot. It arrived in the mail where I live in Washington state — and I’ve already sent it back to the elections committee. Note how I didn’t vote for either...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 543 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
How Far to free?