Loan or savings for college. Graduation cap and roll of dollars.

Who Should Pay for College? America’s Answer is Changing

Traditionally, most Americans have treated college as something that students and parents are responsible for. In a 1980 survey, more than 55% of Americans said paying for college was a parent’s job and another 25% said it was a student’s. 

Now, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, we think differently. Per a study released last year, 57% of Americans surveyed think the government should be responsible for covering the cost of college.

One reason for the change, the Chronicle suggests, is because people understand that a college education today serves the same purpose as a high school diploma used to: it’s become a basic credential for getting a good job. The case for the government paying for college is now no different than the case for the government paying for a K-12 education: everybody needs it. 

But there’s another reason, too: the economy grows for everyone when more people have a college education.

“When the pollsters asked those who viewed paying for college as primarily a governmental responsibility why they took that position,” the Chronicle writes,

“the reason they cited, more than any other, was that it serves a collective good. In open-ended responses, more than half of respondents sounded the collective-good theme in explaining their position. Assisting students in paying for college was good for the workforce, helped the United States remain economically competitive, and produced responsible citizens, they argued.”

The People Who Need College Are Often Priced Out

Those are great reasons, but there are more practical reasons as well. The cost of college has gone up so much that for many Americans, a degree seems out of reach. Even if they want to pay for it on their own, they can’t. The amount of student debt has more than doubled since the 1990s, and today, seven out of 10 college students carry debt on their bachelor’s degree.

Perhaps that’s why half of Americans said in a 2022 survey that it wasn’t possible for people like them to get a high quality education after high school. In another survey, about 60 percent of Californians said that state universities were unaffordable. 

So while college is a public good, it’s one that most of the country can’t afford to share in.

Making College Free is Just The Beginning

“We may be in the midst of a perceptual shift,” the Chronicle writes. “A reframing of the narrative about college into one that sees it as a public good. A good that, like clean water or public parks, will require collective investment to maintain and make available, but that could pay communal and societal dividends.”

Calbright strongly believes in this change: that’s why we’re an online college that’s free to all Californians. Students shouldn’t have to risk their futures to get an education, so we make college risk free. That starts with being debt free.

It’s a simple equation: when you make college free, more people enroll.

But making college accessible is about more than just cost. It needs to be compatible with the increasingly complicated lives people lead: college needs to be compatible with work schedules, compatible with family responsibilities, and it needs to be supportive rather than isolating. 

Making college affordable is one crucial step in making it accessible, one that will help students achieve their career goals and boost the economy for everyone. But college will also have to be reimagined from top to bottom to better meet the needs of the millions of people who are currently excluded. 

Calbright’s model is one way this can be done.

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