Is free college tuition too far-fetched? As president of a community college, I certainly had my doubts up until a few years ago. Grant programs in Minnesota, Tennessee, South Dakota and my own state, North Dakota, have turned doubts into belief.
The momentum for affordable education has arrived. Democrats and Republicans have expressed growing concern about Americans’ ability to earn a college degree without accumulating a crushing debt. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., has pledged to make tuition free at public colleges and universities, while his opponent for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, has proposed to make college more affordable. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, highlighted the problem of college costs by sharing that he recently paid off $100,000 in student loans.
Toward the end of the 20th century, higher education was within reach for most Americans, primarily through low-cost community colleges. Baby boomers, the main beneficiaries, became the wealthiest generation in history. Over the past 30 years, though, higher education has again become more privilege than right. Millennials raise families, work multiple jobs and still find themselves burdened with college debt. The average U.S. student loan debt for the class of 2015 was a little more than $35,000, making it the most indebted class in history.
But something striking has happened in Williston, a North Dakota oil-boom town gone bust. Starting this year, Williston State College has offered free tuition, fees and books to every Williams County high school graduate and will offer free tuition and fees next school year to all 18 high school graduating classes from five surrounding counties.
Enrollment at Williston State has increased by 30 percent. Students have demonstrated a level of appreciation I have rarely seen in my 25-plus years in higher education. Reactions have ranged from “I cannot believe I will be able to graduate with an associate degree without any debt” to “This scholarship means I won’t have to work a full-time job, that I can be a full-time student.”
The impact of tuition-free education has been remarkable. Millennials no longer ask whether college is worth the cost. Working parents feel they can attend college. Graduates face a debt-free future.
Opponents say free tuition is too costly. Yet tuition-free higher education is a growing reality as states wake up to the relationship between an educated workforce and a state’s economic health. Minnesota has the Two-Year Occupational Grant Pilot Program, Tennessee has Tennessee Promise and South Dakota has Build Dakota, all of which provide full-ride scholarships to community and/or technical colleges. (In the Minnesota and Tennessee free-tuition models, the full-ride scholarships kick in after federal and other state financial aid has been applied.) California is pondering free tuition for community colleges at a potential cost to taxpayers of $420 million annually.
North Dakota, once awash in oil revenue, has seen that money dry up. Williston State’s free tuition was made possible only by a state partnership with private companies and a nonprofit foundation. The Williston State College Foundation launched the scholarship by turning a world-class oil play in the Williston Basin into a world-class scholarship opportunity that leverages revenue from minerals gifted to the foundation by private donors and state matching dollars. The $29 million Higher Education Challenge Fund, approved three years ago by the North Dakota legislature, matches every $2 in private donations with $1 in state funding. Imagine how many more students could achieve their dreams if only a small share of the earnings of the $3.5 billion sitting in North Dakota’s Legacy Fund, a rainy-day fund financed through oil revenue, were tapped to provide tuition-free education for more North Dakotans.
The debate we have seen this presidential campaign season about college costs may launch even more foundation, state and national initiatives. Obstacles remain, as escalating costs in college and university operations still need to be addressed. But what an opportunity this moment presents to equalize higher education access for all Americans and not allow higher education to return to only those who can afford it.
Raymond Nadolny is president of Williston State College in North Dakota. He wrote this for The Washington Post.