Will College Be Free in 4 Years?

What the inaugural means to a 13-year-old thinking about his future.

January 21, 2021
Mogue Wisniewski
(Kristie Wisniewski)

History will recall President Biden at his inauguration urging unity in a deeply divided nation confronting a raging pandemic, growing inequity, systemic racism and a climate crisis.

But sitting at a kitchen table in Philadelphia, a 13-year-old boy named Mogue Wisniewski, wasn’t watching the ceremony in Washington. In a sign of the times, the seventh grader at the Philadelphia Academy Charter School was looking at his laptop, remotely attending math class.

“I’m not that interested in politics,” he said earlier this week when asked about Biden.

But years from now, perhaps when he is a student in college, he may recall this cold January day that transformed his life when a new president, who has vowed to make tuition free at public colleges for families like Wisniewski's, was sworn in.

The boy and his twin brother have already had their challenges, having been placed into foster care as babies. But they were adopted by Kristie Wisniewski, who values education. She teaches GED classes to prisoners.

But teaching GED in prisons does not make you rich.

On the day Biden raised his right hand and put his left on a Bible, with his wife, Jill, a community college professor, at his side, college is not affordable to many. A study by the National College Attainment Network in 2019 estimated that in the 2017-18 school year, only 25 percent of public four-year colleges were affordable to students who qualify for Pell Grants. Even with grants, student loans and working 20 hours a week, on average nationally, they still fell short $2,406 annually of the cost of tuition and the other expenses of going to college.

Even though tuition at community colleges is cheaper than a four-year college, the cost of living is the same. Less than half of two-year colleges, 45 percent, were affordable. On average, the cost of attending them was $640 a year more than what students can reasonably afford.

In Pennsylvania, where the Wisniewskis live, cost is an even greater obstacle to getting a higher education. If Mogue were starting college, he wouldn’t find any public four-year institutions in the state that are considered affordable. The cost of attending is on average $9,630 a year more than what low-income students could afford, even if they work, get grants and take out loans.

On the first day of the Biden administration, that is the reality facing the Wisniewskis and all other low-income students hoping to go to college.

For Mogue, making up for the gap in income could mean having to take out more student loans than is the average, said Carrie Warick, NCAN’s policy and advocacy director. Such students may have to borrow more than the maximum $31,000 in federal student loans allowed for undergraduates. They might also have to take out more higher-interest private loans.

Their parents, many of whom do not earn enough to be able to pay back the loans, will have to borrow money to send their children to college. Mogue and other students may have to work more hours than they should, sacrificing time to sleep and study and actually complete college and graduate.

They may, as many do now, not have enough to eat or struggle to pay for a place to live.

Or they may decide they can’t afford to go to college at all.

It’s impossible to tell what the next four years will bring. But the reason Mogue may one day think Biden's inauguration changed his life is that Biden is proposing to change this picture by the time millions of others children his age are old enough to go to college.

To be sure, there are many political obstacles to Biden being able to make public colleges and universities free, as he proposes, for students whose families make $125,000 a year or less.

There is the $1 trillion cost over a decade, plus opposition from some Republicans, who argue that making colleges largely dependent on tax dollars, instead of tuition, will inevitably lead to their underfunding and a "socialist" rationing of higher education. Private institutions are worried many of them will close if they have to compete with public colleges where students would be able to get degrees for free.

But for Warick, and many other advocates who have been pushing to make college more affordable, yesterday was a new beginning, a day of hope that four years from now, parents like Mogue’s mother, Kristie, will not have to worry about whether their children will be able to afford to pursue their dreams.

Even doubling the $6,345 maximum size of Pell Grants, a cheaper, smaller and more politically likely step than eliminating tuition at many colleges, would have, according to 2017-18 figures, eliminated the gap in what it would cost lower-income students to go to college in 40 states and Puerto Rico.

“The new administration has a higher education agenda, whereas we heard very little from the Trump administration,” Warick said. “I’m feeling hope because the Biden administration is focused on higher education and the other was not.”

On the day Biden took office, Mogue, like many 13-year-olds, was dreaming of becoming a star athlete, in his case in the National Hockey League.

“I scored two goals in my last game,” said Mogue, who also volunteers as a referee in a kids' league.

There are many who care about family and being around their children when they are a parent. Perhaps that is more the case when you and your brother are taken away from drug-addicted parents.

As he considered his future, Mogue fretted that if he were a star in the NHL, he would have to be on the road much of the year playing in cities around the country and even in Canada.

“If I have a kid or a family, I’m going to have to leave them to go play,” he said.

The boy contemplated his future work-life balance.

“I guess they could come with me,” he said.

He might have to do something else, and go to college.

Mogue said he's good with technology. And his mother has been talking to him about studying computer science in college.

She’s told him about how much she loved college. “She tells me how much fun she had,” the boy said.

Before he was adopted, “we didn’t have electronics. We just had a box TV and we watched channels. Now we have electronics. Phones. Tablets. Laptops.”

He uses them to talk to his friends, watch Netflix. He’s curious how the gadgets work.

He’s taken apart cellphones, but he doesn’t know enough to put them back together. But maybe someday he will..

“My uncle is a genius is all that,” he said, noting that his uncle is going to help him try to build a computer from scratch.

Mogue seems mature for his age, or at least mature enough to know that what he is interested in at 13 may not be what he’s into at 17.

“If I go to college, I’ll go into what I’m most interested in then,” he said.  “I do want to be successful. I want to be able to afford a home, but I don’t want to do a job just for the money. I want to do a job I like.”

And he thinks people shouldn’t have to pay.

The GED courses Kristie Wisniewski teaches have been suspended during the pandemic. But she’s seen from the students who used to come to her classes that more is needed than free college.

There was one student who took the GED test before he’d taken any of her classes. “He almost got a perfect score. He was a genius. He definitely could have gone to an Ivy. I felt so bad for him, growing up in a household without people nurturing him,” she said.

The man ran a drug-dealing operation, and she doesn’t know what happened to him after he was taken away to a federal prison to serve his time on federal drug charges.

She got grants when she went to LaSalle University, where she got a communications degree. She’d had summer jobs at camps but ended up with $35,000 in debt.

She struggled to pay back her loans while selling ads for a newspaper, even after becoming a substitute teacher. She wants better for her son.

"I want him to be able to come out of college debt-free. So that he’s not paying once he’s out and working, not making enough to live on his own or not having enough to have a car.

“I really don’t want them to start their lives in debt,” she said of her children on the first day of the administration of a president who says he wants that, too.

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Kery Murakami

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