During the October 2015 Democratic presidential debate, Bernie Sanders offered an accurate assessment of what it will take to make free higher education a reality in the United States. “If we want free tuition at public colleges and universities,” Sanders said, “millions of young people are going to have to demand it.”
A large part of the student debt is attributable to students who paid for for-profit colleges which could be thought of as Wall Street scams. These students borrowed large amounts of money with almost no chance of getting a job if they actually got a degree. Also, about 40% of students in public colleges don't graduate which makes it hard for them to pay off their debts. And, much of the debt is from students who go to private colleges and universities. There is no basis for saying that free tuition at public colleges and universities is a pressing need. It wouldn't help students who attend private schools and many students at public schools can afford the tuition or a least a good part of it.
Have a college entrance exam, or baccalaureate after completing high school, let the ones who pass attend "free". Others can pay. Otherwise we'd just spend tax payer money on people who are not qualified to attend college anyway.
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Far more important at this juncture is that K-12 schools are funded at the same rate per student across the country. That way, those coming from areas with high property values aren't the only ones with an education sufficient to prepare them for college.