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free college

Photo by Leon Wu on Unsplash

Graduation is easier to celebrate when you're debt-free.

Taking on college-related debt is something that most Americans now expect when graduating high school, especially if their parents are middle class or working poor. There are only so many scholarships to go around and so much you can earn from work study. In fact, the average millennial has just under $40,000 in student loan debt and Americans owe around $1.7 trillion in student loans. Taking on large amounts of debt fresh out of high school has become the norm, but that may be changing soon.

Some states are already offering two free years of college for graduating high school students, and now the 30th state is ready to sign on to do the same. Some states are taking it further than two years of free college and extending it to four years with the option to use the program for trade and technical schools as well. In New Mexico, the Opportunity Scholarship provides free college to its residents and expands that even further to include adult learners, returning students and immigrants regardless of immigration status. That last provision is unheard of, because, contrary to popular belief, undocumented immigrants are not typically able to participate in any sort of government funding or programs due to their lack of social security number and other documentation needed for participation.

The long-term effects of free college could be massive for the average American. It would open up the door for other opportunities that may have otherwise been hindered by holding so much college debt. Homeownership would be easier to come by for graduates due to an inherently lower debt-to-income ratio. It could also allow college graduates to save more money for retirement, a down payment on a house or to open their own business because they wouldn’t have to spend a large portion of their earnings on student loan payments. This could help bridge some of the wealth gap between higher earners and people that went into a lower paying profession such as teaching or social work.

Thirty states signing on to this type of initiative would bring us much closer to having universal college. And this would help give a fighting chance to those who may feel like they started life on the lowest rung. New Mexico’s Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez told CNBC, “We want to be the national example of how you create a higher education ecosystem system that’s inclusive and accessible, so nobody is turned away from the opportunity to go to college.”

Maine would be state number 30 to allow for free college if the bill passes. Governor Janet Mills has proposed a plan that would make two years of community college free. When speaking to CNBC, Morley Winograd, president and CEO of the Campaign for Free College Tuition, said "If we get to 50, it's mission accomplished." Most are “last dollar” scholarships, which essentially means that any federal aid and private scholarships would be applied first, and the state-funded scholarships would cover the remaining balance.

If all 50 states signed bills similar to the ones in the other 29 states, it would make free college a reality and many families struggling with how to afford to send their children to college would rejoice.