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With student debt forgiveness stalled, is free college also dead?

  • Cutting student loan debt is in the spotlight, but the price of college in the first place is going largely unaddressed.
  • The federal government can do little about the cost of tuition, with state budgets and private institutions holding most of the power in this arena.
  • Free college programs can only go so far; tuition has been rising with little exception for decades; and experts say there are too penalties for colleges if students don’t graduate.
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President Joe Biden’s plan for mass student loan debt relief may be a bust, but the attempt to wipe billions in education-related debt was an acknowledgment: The way the U.S. pays for higher education is not working. 

Why else would nearly $400 billion in student loan debt relief be necessary? Biden himself stated in announcing his plan that an “entire generation is now saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for an attempt, at least, at a college degree.”

“The burden is so heavy that even if you graduate,” he said in August, “you may not have access to the middle-class life that the college degree once provided.”

Questions about making college affordable for a wide swath of students remain perennially – and stubbornly – unanswered, and few policymakers have offered long-term solutions. Instead, the federal government is largely focused on addressing the impact of student loans on the roughly 44 million people holding education-related debts: The administration has streamlined the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, canceled the debts of students taken advantage of by predatory colleges and universities and unveiled a new income-driven repayment plan that could reduce how much borrowers have to pay. 

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