By the CAP Postsecondary Education Team
A student studies on a campus in Los Angeles, May 2015.
As America struggles with college completion, student debt has become an increasing financial danger. About one-fifth of the U.S.
population collectively owes more than $1.5 trillion in federal education debt. Roughly 1 million people default on their federal student
loans every year. About half of those students dropped out of college, and almost 90 percent were low-income. Taken together, having
student debt but no college credential can trap all students—but especially those most in need of economic security—in the cycle of
A college degree can be a ticket out of this cycle and into middle-class jobs. America’s economy today disproportionately rewards those
with a college degree. The data show that college matters: All net new jobs created since the Great Recession went to people with
degrees. The unemployment rate for adults who have at least an associate degree is just 2.5 percent—nearly half the rate of those who
never attended or didn’t finish college. Postsecondary graduates are also more likely to have access to employer-based retirement
savings or health insurance and even live longer lives.
This report lays out a sweeping new vision from the Center for American Progress: Beyond Tuition. It is a proposal to restore the promise
of an affordable higher education for all and to reduce the burden of student debt. It also includes an emphasis on addressing
widespread inequity in opportunity and outcomes. That starts with guaranteeing that a student’s background, particularly their race,
ethnicity, gender, or socioeconomic status, will not limit their ability to access, afford, and complete college. Beyond Tuition also ensures
there are supports along the way to help students achieve those goals, and that these efforts are backed by strong accountability
systems that hold states and institutions responsible if desired outcomes are not met.
Beyond Tuition rests on three core promises:
• The affordability promise: No student should have to borrow for college costs.
• The quality promise: All students are guaranteed a high-quality education that meets their needs.
• The accountability promise: Everyone has a role in student access and success.
Beyond Tuition starts with the idea that all students, regardless of their background, should be able to afford a postsecondary education
without going into debt. This means not just providing affordable tuition but also helping to cover other associated expenses such as
books, housing, transportation, and food. Simply put, the lowest-income students should not have to pay for college, and middle-income
students should be able to afford the total price of college based on a reasonable family contribution and with no expectation of having to
borrow, save, or work while in school. Moreover, these promises would persist over time, so families do not have to worry about facing
large price increases each year. The federal government would make this possible through a substantial new investment matched by
state and institutional funding as well as school-based efforts at cost containment.
Just putting college within financial reach is not enough to close the pressing gaps—by race or ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or other
underrepresented identities—in college-going and completion that America faces today. Beyond Tuition, therefore, proposes schools
conduct a thorough equity audit of their practices to ensure, among other things, that students from all backgrounds are served by their
campus. This means ensuring that admissions practices do not privilege students who are wealthier or come from families that have
experience navigating the college application process; that students have access to services such as career assistance, disability
support services, writing tutors, and advising; that placement tests are not biased in such a way that they disproportionately result in
underrepresented students being placed into remedial or lower-level courses; and that students are taught by diverse faculty, particularly
in introductory courses.
Beyond Tuition upends the U.S. Department of Education’s current ineffective system of accountability for a more tailored, flexible, and
performance-based system that maintains a strong focus on equity. Instead of judging schools on one measure of student outcomes—
the loan default rate—schools would sign performance contracts. These contracts would lay out institutional goals for student outcomes
on measures of access, completion, and post-school success, and they would provide incentives to keep costs from rising. Institutions
would be compared with peer institutions, so schools would not be held to unfair standards and would be given time to improve instead
of facing immediate loss of funds.
Now is the time for a bold rethinking of America’s higher education system. Beyond Tuition embodies the idea that education beyond
high school is a civil right. It will turn the tide of repeated state budget cuts that threatens to privatize the United States’ system of public
higher education and launch millions of graduates into the middle class.
Editor's Note: For the complete report, please visit the Center for American Progress website: www.americanprogress.org
An Introduction & Report Summary
More than 50 years ago, President Lyndon Johnson took the stage at
what was then known as Southwest Texas State College to sign the
first Higher Education Act. “To thousands of young men and women,
this act means the path of knowledge is open to all that have the
determination to walk it,” Johnson declared. “It means that a high
school senior anywhere in this great land of ours can apply to any
college or any university in any of the 50 states and not be turned
away because his family is poor.”
Unfortunately, today, President Johnson’s promise is broken.
Nationally, less than half of adults between the ages of 25 and 34
have at least an associate degree, and only 35 percent of black and
28 percent of Latino Americans have achieved this milestone. A low-
income student is four times less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree
than their wealthier peers. Similarly, students with disabilities earn
bachelor’s degrees at less than half the rate of adults without