Why you should care
Because higher education is expensive, no matter who picks up the check.
It was a key pledge in Bernie Sanders’ insurgent presidential campaign: The federal government should make four-year college free. A generation laden with student loan debt cheered him on, and even though Sanders’ campaign fell short, the idea retains wide public support in a new poll from OZY and SurveyMonkey.
69 percent of respondents support the federal government providing free post-secondary education.
But would they pay higher taxes for it? Just 57 percent of free higher ed supporters would agree to coughing up more for Uncle Sam to get there. Overall support — before the tax question — is strongest among millennials: In the 18-to-34 set, 80 percent support it, with 53 percent strongly supportive. The “somewhat support” response is consistent across age groups, but strong support falls to 30 percent for respondents 65 and older.
A total of 3,350 adults across the country — including 631 aged 18 to 34 — were surveyed online from August 7–9. Respondents were randomly selected from those who take surveys on SurveyMonkey’s platform. The responses were weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using census data to reflect the demographic composition of the United States. (The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 3.0 percentage points. To see the full poll results, click here. For more on SurveyMonkey’s methodology, click here.)
Washington is far from embracing the idea.
Washington is far from embracing the idea. The most significant move a sclerotic Congress has made in recent years on college affordability was, after a delay, preventing federal student loan interest rates from doubling in 2013. (President Donald Trump did recently sign a bipartisan bill expanding tuition benefits for military veterans.) Republicans, who now control all three branches of government, aren’t keen on adding new domestic spending, particularly anything that can be branded an entitlement. Many conservatives argue that federal student loan programs bear the blame for skyrocketing college costs — and scaling them back would help deflate the bubble. The poll reflects that partisan split, though a good chunk of GOP voters still backs the idea.
“Republicans are known to be fiscally conservative and are, in general, less likely to support paying higher taxes to support free college themselves, but they also differ on how strongly they support the idea of free college for all: 23 percent of Republicans strongly support it versus 63 percent of Democrats,” says Erin Pinkus, a research scientist for SurveyMonkey who helped conduct the poll. “Both groups look very similar on the ‘somewhat support’ — 25 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats.”
Advocates like Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress, an arm of the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress, concede that free or debt-free college proposals aren’t going anywhere in Congress. But there is plenty of action at the state and local levels. New York recently approved tuition-free four-year college. A handful of states — including Republican-run Tennessee — backs free two-year community college. “There’s definitely momentum around these ideas,” Thompson says. “I think it’s a matter of figuring out what states and localities are ready to move forward and figuring out how to structure them so they address equity issues, so people who are having the most trouble affording college are getting the most help.”
Last year Generation Progress conducted its own polling among young likely voters, asking what would make them more likely to support a candidate. The strongest-performing issues? Debt-free college for families earning less than $125,000 per year and free community college. College affordability has been less politicized, Thompson says, than policies like health care.
And what about swing voters? The OZY poll found 72 percent of Independents support government-funded post-secondary education (41 percent strongly), and 58 percent of those Independent supporters would pay higher taxes for it. Just in case there are any politicians left who are searching for a middle ground.
You can take the full poll for yourself by scrolling down in the box below.