Students whose families make less than $125,000 a year and have assets worth $300,000 or less, including home equity but excluding anything that they have saved in retirement accounts, won’t have to pay tuition. Students whose families make less than $65,000 also won’t have to pay for room and board, which can run about another $14,100. Scholarships or grants will cover the costs instead, and the school has a $21 billion endowment. The thresholds were previously $100,000 for free tuition and $60,000 for free room and board.
Students will still have to contribute at least $5,000 a year from part-time work during the school year, working during the summer, and/or savings.
“Our highest priority is that Stanford remain affordable and accessible to the most talented students, regardless of their financial circumstances,” said Provost John Etchemendy in a press release. “Our generous financial aid program accomplishes that, and these enhancements will help even more families, including those in the middle class, afford Stanford without going into debt.” The school says that 77 percent of undergraduates leave without student debt.
That makes Stanford graduates somewhat unique, as about 70 percent graduate with debt, owing an average of $29,000 at the end of last year. Student loan debt has tripled over the last decade. Meanwhile, nearly a third of those who have started to pay back the loans are more than three months behind on payments.
But Stanford isn’t the only place offering free tuition. Princeton offers free tuition to parents who make less than $120,000 and free room and board to those who make under $60,000. Harvard and Yale make tuition free for families who make less than $65,000, while Harvard asks those who make between that level and $150,000 to contribute between 0 and 10 percent of their income.
The idea has also cropped up outside of elite private schools and gone even further. Harper College in Palatine, Illinois recently announced that it will offer two years of community college free for high school graduates who maintain high grades, attendance levels, and community service engagement for four years.
Governments have also gotten in on the action. Tennessee has already started a program that gives all of the state’s high school graduates free tuition at a two-year community college. Chicago also launched a program to give high school graduates with a 3.0 GPA free tuition, books, and fees for community college. And in January, President Obama proposed a plan that would cover tuition costs for all high school graduates who enroll full-time or half-time in community colleges with occupational training or credit toward a four-year degree and maintain a 2.5 GPA.
All of those programs would be moot, however, if the government took a simple step and made all public universities free. Tuition at all public colleges came to $62.6 billion in 2012. The federal government could take the $69 billion it currently spends helping students cover the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds and instead simply cover tuition at those schools for anyone who wanted to attend. That would give all students of all income backgrounds an affordable option, and it could also put pressure on private schools like Stanford and Harvard to reduce their tuition to compete, which has risen 13 percent over the last five years.