The price of college is rising, making college feel out of reach for a rising share of Americans. Families can borrow to be sure, but with total student loan debt now above $1 trillion nationally, the situation seems unsustainable. Meanwhile, we face a long-term decline in our international ranking on college attainment and the disparities in college access by race and income—disparities that financial aid and loans are supposed to address—seem larger than ever. It is no surprise then that in the campaign for U.S. President in the 2016 election, nearly all candidates of both major political parties raised the issue of college affordability.
Increasing financial aid to students is one obvious potential solution. Once limited to discussions of the size of need-based aid programs such as Pell grants and state-based merit aid programs, new forms of aid have emerged. Place-based “promise scholarships” provide funds to students attending schools in certain cities and states. Others have proposed changes on a national scale, increasing and redesigning financial aid to eliminate student loan debt, called debt-free college, or going even further by eliminating tuition, fees, and/or some share of living expenses—free college.