Those with student loan debt oppose Obama’s tuition-free college plan, study finds

by Sharita Forrest  /   Jul 6, 2016

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From left, Shubhanshu Mishra, Derek A. Houston, and Daniel A. Collier

An analysis of online conversations by Derek A. Houston, Ed.M. ’10 EPS, Daniel A. Collier, Ph.D. ’16 EPOL, and Shubhanshu Mishra, a graduate student in the school of Information Sciences, revealed that a significant number of people oppose President Obama’s proposed plan for tuition-free community colleges.

The study showed that Obama’s plan, America’s College Promise, is viewed as lacking measures to help the millions of borrowers currently mired in student loan debt.

The researchers examined the content and civility of more than 1,800 comments that were posted on four prominent websites during the week following Obama’s announcement of the America’s College Promise plan on Jan. 8, 2015.

Approximately 70 percent of people in the study sample expressed opposition to Obama’s proposed plan, in which the federal government would provide $3 for every $1 that states invest in waiving tuition at community colleges.

Women, blacks and Latinos were more likely to be in favor of the president’s plan, which would cover occupational skills training programs that award credentials as well as transfer curricula that prepare community college students to pursue bachelor’s degrees at four-year institutions.

When possible, the researchers identified writers’ race, gender, and age from information on their Facebook profiles, their membership in race-exclusive groups such as “Latin@s for Obama,” or other online sources.

While the majority of the messages expressing opposition to tuition-free college programs were civil, the researchers indicated that some of the policy discussions were derailed by inflammatory rhetoric, such as the fairness of Obama’s policy on the grounds it would provide a “free ride” for low-income students, “illegal immigrants,” or other groups at the expense of the “hard-working” middle class.

“People with student loan debt were really displeased about the prospects of others gaining social advantages because they believe their own economic position has really been compromised,” said Collier, who was the lead author of the study. “In recent years, the funding stream has flipped as it pertains to who pays for college—the student or the government—and many believe student-loan debt really affects the middle class more than other groups. Those with student loan debt may not support these tuition-free policies if it won’t benefit them.”

Nicholas D. Hartlep and Brandon O. Hensley, both of Illinois State University, helped co-author the study with Houston and Mishra.

Read the full article by the Illinois News Bureau and view the database created for the research project.