66 Free College Education Statistics: 2023 Data, Trends & Predictions

66 Free College Education Statistics: 2023 Data, Trends & Predictions
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

For many people around the world, a college degree is a necessary stepping stone to a better life. Especially in today’s economic climate, a diploma from a reputable institution could be the foundation of a solid career. Having one may not guarantee instant success but it can surely lend one a leg up in job searches. That is not just based on casual observation–research has shown that bachelor’s degree holders earn 84% more compared to those who only have a high school diploma (Carnevale et al., 2011). More recent findings from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019) back this claim when it stated that Americans with a bachelor’s degree have median weekly earnings of $1,281, $532 more than their high school graduate counterparts.

The only problem is that college education does not come cheap. In fact, 84% of Americans who believe that the U.S. education system is going in the wrong direction cite high tuition costs as their reason (Brown, 2018). Not only do these costs prevent many students from pursuing a college degree; it also holds back college graduates from living their life properly. According to a survey by Bankrate, 56% of millennials have put off life milestones such as moving out from their parents’ house, getting married, or having kids primarily because of their student debt (Anderson, 2015).

With these factors, it is unsurprising that many are calling for free college education. 51% of American youth support the elimination of tuition fees in public colleges and universities (Harvard Institute of Politics, 2019). This is understandable, as they can see that there are free colleges in Europe where students thrive. That said, it is important to understand the current state of a free college education. In this article, free college education statistics have been compiled to make sense of its benefits as well as the perception of educators and students on the matter.

Free College Education Statistics Table of Contents

  1. Cost of College Education
  2. Tuition Fee Then versus Now
  3. Student Debt
  4. Current State of Free College Education
  5. Government Spending on Free College Education
  6. Perception of Free College Education
  7. Free College is Helping Shape the Higher Education System

Cost of College Education

There is not a single figure that we could use to tag the cost of a college education. It is subject to so many variables that one category can double or half the tuition price of a college from another. Because of that, some students are even asking “does it matter where you go to college?” just to find one that fits their economic capacities. With that said, however, we have compiled a series of statistics that will help determine the average cost of studying in colleges or universities under different scenarios.

  • During the academic year 2019–2020, the average annual cost of tuition, fees, board, and the room in the U.S. is around $30,500.
  • For a public four-year institution, the average in-state price of a college education is $21,950 while the out-of-state rate reaches up to $38,330.
  • The average total price of a four-year degree is about $122,000.
  • In terms of four-year tuition, Columbia University is the most expensive college in the U.S. with a hefty price tag of $213,520. The average cost per course is $8,896.
  • On average, medical school during 2019-2020 academic year costs range from $37,556 to $62,194 for in-state and out-of-state public institutions.
  • Out-of-state tuition costs significantly more than in-state tuition and fees. For instance, the University of Illinois College of Medicine’s out-of-state tuition and fees costs $99,622 while its in-state counterpart only costs $52,444.
  • Engineering is one of the most expensive courses to study in the U.S. that will cost you $40,000 for fixed academic charges alone. If the other expenses such as accommodation and living expenditures are added, the expenses could easily reach over $60,000 per year.
  • The average cost of four-year schooling in the U.S. is estimated to have a 4.9% growth per annum.
  • Given the projection above, the cost of college in the U.S. is expected to reach $240,825 in 20 years.
  • With an average price of $8,202 per year for public institutions, the U.S. has the highest tuition cost out of the 37 countries that are members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
  • In New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and South Korea, the tuition fee costs around $4,000.
  • In the U.K., the average cost of college is around $7,528 per annum.
  • The cost of college education in Austria, Hungary, Luxembourg, and Mexico is less than $1,000.

Source: EducationData.org

Tuition Fee Then versus Now

The list of statistics below will show that there is a big disparity between the price of a college education now and 30 years ago. This is due to a number of factors, such as the surge in demand as well as the rate of salary increase that cannot keep up with the rate of tuition increase. There is also the issue regarding the lack of state funding and the cost of today’s college that renders a degree to become less advantageous than it was 10 years ago. (Hoffower H., 2019)

  • In 1987, the average price of an undergraduate degree is $39,643. Adjusted for inflation, this costs $103,616 in 2016.
  • The students of the University of Central Florida in 2016 has to pay 87% more than if they studied there in 1987.
  • Back in 1987, a student who earns a minimum wage through part-time work can cover 106.5% of his/her college education.
  • This method will not fly in 2016, however, since the same minimum-wage salary can only pay for 68.2% of a college education.
  • In comparison, baby boomers only have to work 306 hours of the minimum wage to pay off their four-year college education. In the same scenario, the millennials would have to work for a total of 4,459 hours.
  • College education essentials such as tuition, fees, boards, rooms, and others are expected to become 3.2% more expensive each year.

Student Debt

With the cost of a college education as high it is, many students find that a student loan is the only option if they want to pursue their studies. The drag, however, is that student debt does not only affect the quality of life of the families directly involved. It also presents a detrimental impact on the economy because people have to forgo buying homes, cars, and other commodities that help with the nation’s GDP.

  • The average student-loan debt in 2018 is $29,200 for each graduating student.
  • There are currently more than 45 million Americans who are faced with student-loan debt.
  • The United State’s national average student loan hit a record high of $1.6 trillion in 2020.
  • Millennials have to pay at least 300% more student loans than their parents did.
  • The average student loan default or delinquency rate is 10.8% (90 + days delinquent).
  • 40% of Americans believe that a person with student debt should pay them off completely. 53% of those who share that belief belongs to the older boomers generation.
  • On the other hand, 35% of Americans say that a student’s debt could be forgiven after paying steadily for 10 years.
  • About one-third of parents still incur a student debt of their own.
  • On average, upcoming graduate students believe it will take them six years to pay off their student debts.
  • According to the Department of Education, however, those who borrow loans between $20,000 to $40,000 will usually take 20 years to pay them all.

Source: CNBC

Current State of Free College Education

The cost of a college education is not something that the government and sponsors can easily shoulder as indicated in the following statistics. In fact, only a handful of countries in the entire world offer such programs. Moreover, those who do typically cover only a portion, albeit a big one, of the college expenses. This mostly includes tuition fees. Other expenses such as transportation, housing, and books could still cost over $3,000 (CollegeBoard, 2019) and it is up to the students to figure out a way to pay for them.

  • According to data from Edvisors and Insider, there are at least 26 countries that offer free or nearly free college/university education to their native citizens including the U.K., Germany, Sweden, and France. Some of them also extend this offer to international students.
  • Among them, Norway pays the most when it comes to college subsidies by spending about 1.3% of its annual GDP.
  • Sweden handles the $20,864 cost of tertiary education for each of its students. The zero-tuition benefit extends both to public and private college students.
  • Denmark spends 0.6% of its GDP to subsidize its citizens’ college education.
  • Ireland has been paying for most of its full-time undergraduate students since 1995. Even until today, the cost of an undergraduate bachelor’s degree is being covered by their Higher Education Authority (HEA).
  • 69% of the young adults’ population in Finland attends universities every year and their government provides them with generous grants and scholarships.
  • At least 18 states in America offer tuition-free college programs through scholarships and grants. These include College Bound Scholarship Washington, Oklahoma’s Promise, New Jersey Community College Opportunity Grant, Tennessee Promise, and New York’s Excelsior Scholarship.
  • 2.5 is the typical GPA that students must maintain to gain and retain their scholarships in the U.S. states that grant them.
  • At least 38 states in America have proposed variations of free college programs.
  • EdX is one of the biggest massive open online course providers with 14 million active users that can access free elearning courses from universities, including Harvard, MIT, and the University of British Columbia.
  • Many of the universities that provide online courses such as MIT and Carnegie Mellon University offer the actual courses that stay-in students get minus the accreditation.
  • Harvard Online Courses offers 50 free courses that you can access anytime. The courses include game development, data science, and religious studies.

Source: OECD.org

Government Spending on Free College Education

Jobs demanding college-level skills are on the rise and to help fill them up, the government is trying a variety of ways to help alleviate the burden of students when it comes to acquiring them. One of the hottest conversations around this topic is the idea of a free college through grants, loans, tax benefits, and more.

  • In A.Y. 2018–2019, the total amount of aid that students receive from loans, grants, and others reached $246 billion.
  • The U.S. grants an average of $15,210 per undergraduate and $28,140 per graduate as student aid.
  • A total of $41.3 billion in federal grants was given to college students in A.Y. 2018–2019.
  • Undergraduate students received 76% of the total student aid in A.Y. 2018–2019.
  • From 2008–2009 to 2018–2019, the total grant aid rose by 56% (adjusted for inflation) to $135.6 billion.
  • In 2016, the state governments’ support for higher education is up by 4.1%.
  • In 2016, the federal government spent around $91 billion on policies, which subsidized college attendance.
  • Of that $91 billion, $37 billion was spent on tax benefits, such as tuition tax credits. $41 billion went to aid military veterans and low-income students. The remaining $13 billion was used as a subsidy for interest payments on student loans.

Perception of Free College Education

The appeal of a free college education is easy to see from the students’ point of view. Not only does it make tertiary education accessible to more students but it also lowers the cost of attendance to those who can afford college in the first place. Furthermore, there are strong arguments to be made as to how it can positively impact a country’s economy, such as better buying power for more citizens, thanks to the good jobs they land.

  • 62% of Americans believe that public universities and colleges should offer free tuition to those who wish to attend them.
  • 63% of U.S. adults are in favor of making tuition free in public colleges.
  • Among them, 37% are strongly in favor of such a proposal.
  • 86% and 82% of African American and Hispanic adults, respectively, are in favor of making college free for every U.S. citizen.
  • Likewise, 53% of whites also support the offering of free college education for Americans.
  • Millennials are the more avid supporter of free college education with 77% of people aged 18-29 believing that public colleges should be tuition-free.
  • In comparison, only about half of people aged 50 and older are in full support of free college education.
  • 83% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are huge supporters of making colleges tuition-free institutions for Americans.
  • One of the issues that free college education can potentially address is that more students from the top 1% of households graduate from highly selective colleges compared to the bottom 60%.
  • With a promise of a four-year free college education at the University of Michigan, the rate of low-income enrollees more than doubled–from 13% to 28%.
  • Similarly, with a promise of free tuition at a flagship university, the application increased substantially–from 26% to 68%. The enrollment rates also received a huge boost–from 12% to 27%.

On the flip side, however, the opposition says that the idea of a free college education is not a well-thought one. According to them, many of the good choices from the current system will be thrown out of the window if college or university education becomes free (Orsolini J., 2016). Plus, for every student that goes to college for free, someone else has to pay. That someone is usually the government, which cannot simply handle them all. Moreover, free tuition also does little to solve some of the persistent problems in higher education, including low rates of degree completion, underfunded public colleges, and overcrowding.

  • According to Pew Research Center, 60% of Republicans are opposed to a free college education.
  • 25% of those who oppose free college education still believe that giving such privilege to families earning $50,000 per year or less is acceptable.
  • Those who are against free college argue that affluent taxpayers shouldering the cost of free education can be wasting their money since 47% of community college enrollees drop out of their school. This is substantially higher than the 27% who actually graduate.
  • This dropout rate is even worse in two-year colleges where only 39% of students complete their studies.
  • Free college can simply mean tuition-free in most programs. While this is certainly helpful, tuition only accounts for 39.5% of the average college costs.
  • Free college can simply increase the attendance rating but not the completion. For instance, with California’s community college fee waiver program, more than 50% of the state’s community college students have attended. However, Only 6% of them completed a career technical program while less than 10% finished a two-year degree in six years.

Source: Bankrate

Free College is Helping Shape the Higher Education System

Free college education has its fair share of pros and cons but as it stands now, the drawbacks outweigh the advantages. It simply is not feasible in many countries and states as the cost of higher education per student is not something to sneeze at, let alone for millions. This is evident in how few nations or colleges are actually implementing them.

Meanwhile, most of the developed countries that have the capacity to provide such scholarship programs for their students are also under constant arguments. There are strong voices in both the opposition and supporting sides. There are issues of quality versus accessibility, good and bad economic impacts, varying opinions about the reallocation of resources, and more. As such, the debates, adjustment, and implementation of free college is, little by little, affecting the higher education system.

Those who are planning to opt for free college education are advised to read more about it, especially the programs that they want to apply to. Each of them has its own requirements and conditions–even creative writing programs would have stringent requirements from interested students. It might be the inclusion of a minimum number of credits per year, GPA to maintain, residency after graduation, and more. Thinking about the commitments attached to each program must always be a consideration.


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  2. Berman, J. & Zehngebot, J. (2018, November 21). Paying for your college, 30 years ago vs. today. Market Watch.
  3. Brown, A. (2018). Most Americans say higher ed is heading in wrong direction, but partisans disagree on why. FacTank. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  4. Carnevale, A.P., Rose, S.J., & Cheah, B. (2011). The College Payoff: Education, Occupations, Lifetime Earnings. Washington, DC: Georgetown University.
  5. Deming, D.J. (2019). The economics of free college. Policy Brief 14. Economics for Inclusive Prosperity.
  6. Deming, D. (2019, July 19). Tuition-free college could cost less than you think. The New York Times.
  7. Dynarski, S., Libassi, C.J., Michelmore, K., & Owen, S. (2018). Closing the gap: The effect of a targeted, tuition-free promise on college choices of high-achieving, low-income students. NBER Working Paper No. 25349. https://www.nber.org/papers/w25349
  8. Harris, A. (2018, December 11). A guarantee of tuition-free college can have life-changing effects. The Atlantic.
  9. Hartig, H. (2020, February 21). Democrats overwhelmingly favor free college tuition, while Republicans are divided by age, education. FacTank. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  10. Harvard Institute of Politics (2019). Spring 2019 Harvard IOP Youth Poll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
  11. Hess, A. (2020, June 12). How student debt became a $1.6 trillion crisis. CNBC.
  12. Maldonado, C. (2018). Price of college increasing almost 8 times faster than wages. Forbes.
  13. US Bureau of Labor Statistics (2019, October 21). Median weekly earnings $606 for high school dropouts, $1,559 for advanced degree holders. The Economics Daily.

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