Here’s how much free college could cost states

A common criticism of many of the proposals touting free college is that it wouldn’t actually be free. While students and families would no longer have to pay for an individual’s college education at a public school, taxpayers would foot the bill.

It may be surprising, then, that an analysis estimating the cost to states of making public college free comes from an organization that very much wants to see that goal accomplished. The Campaign for Free College Tuition released a report Friday, which estimates that states would lose out on anywhere between $42.8 million (Delaware) and $4.96 billion (California) in tuition revenue in the first year if public college were to become free.

The estimate is meant to provide a starting point for policy makers to engage in an honest discussion about the costs of free college and determine whether it’s a worthy investment, the paper’s author, Mark Schneider, the vice president of American Institutes for Research who also served as Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics during the latter part of the George W. Bush administration, wrote in the report.

“The purpose of these calculations is to give each state some idea of how expensive ‘free’ is for them and thereby help taxpayers and state officials engage in a more informed discussion of this politically popular policy option,” he wrote in the paper.

The report comes just a few days after Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her former rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) promoted Clinton’s debt-free college proposal at the University of New Hampshire. Even there, Sanders acknowledged the cost of the proposal, but argued that the benefits make it a worthy investment.

“Now, some people will say — our critics will say — well, it’s a good idea, making public colleges and universities tuition free. But it’s expensive, costs a lot of money,” Sanders said at the rally. “And the truth is, it is an expensive proposal. But I will tell you what is even more expensive, and that is doing nothing. We must invest in our young people and the future of this country.”

Even though Clinton’s proposal is perhaps the most prominent college affordability plan, the CFTC report isn’t an analysis of her specific policies. Clinton has proposed making college tuition-free for families earning $125,000 or less as part of a plan which would use incentives from the federal government to encourage states to invest more in higher education. CFCT’s analysis doesn’t take any possible federal investment into account and assumes that all students in each state would be eligible to receive free tuition.

Still, even without considering those nuances, the numbers presented in the report seem like a reasonable starting point to discuss the cost of making college more affordable, said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, a think-tank that consulted with the Clinton campaign on its debt-free college proposal.

“We have to be honest about what revenue is needed and what the sources of that revenue should be,” he said. “That’s a conversation that needs to be had, but just looking at these numbers, there’s nothing inherently shocking.” He added: “It’s not that huge considering what the outcome is for students.”

The Clinton campaign estimates that her program would cost $500 billion over 10 years and would be paid for by capping certain tax deductions for high-income households. A Demos estimate puts the cost of the program at about less than 1% of the Obama administration’s 2016 proposed budget and less than 1% of the national defense budget.

Clinton’s plan isn’t the only free college proposal out there and some states and localities are already providing free college to their residents. More data from those experiments, some of which are relatively new, could help provide insight into how many more students might attend public college if it were free — and how much more that would cost, Schneider wrote in the report.

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