What would ‘free college’ really mean?

Sen. Bernie Sanders opened up a national debate on free college when he made it a key issue of his 2016 presidential campaign.  Congressional leaders and 2020 presidential candidates have put forward their own college affordability plans. While some are calling for tuition-free college, others have started using the phrase ‘debt-free college.’

Some of the plans rely on states to help fund them, with the federal government matching state spending. That would probably be helpful for students in California—not so much for states that spend little on higher education and might reject federal help.

One dilemma policymakers must face: whether to make free college programs targeted or universal. Benefits that apply to everyone tend to be politically popular (think Medicare). But some argue that any new financial aid should go to the lowest-income students, not families that could afford to pay on their own.