Americans from across the political spectrum agree: college costs are too high. Tuition prices have grown much faster than inflation, making college increasingly unaffordable.1 Over the past thirty years, even accounting for inflation, the average cost of tuition and fees to attend college more than doubled.2 Tuition costs have risen at a faster rate than the costs of medical services, child care, and housing.3

Towering tuition costs prevent many students from pursuing a college degree. And for those that do pursue a degree, it often means shouldering a debt burden that lasts decades. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court  rejected the Biden administration’s plan to forgive federal student debt for upwards of 40 million Americans, a move which will further exacerbate the financial pain felt by millions of borrowers. 

Against that backdrop, new research from The Century Foundation (TCF) and Lake Research Partners (LR) shows that voters of all stripes agree that government action is needed to address soaring college costs.4 Strikingly, our research shows that voters from both parties strongly support a government policy to impose caps on college tuition prices as a condition for schools’ receipt of federal aid.

Why is college tuition so high?

The forces contributing to soaring tuition prices are complex. Inadequate state investment in public higher education5 and colleges’ bloated administrative costs are important drivers of the steep increases in tuition prices.6 Federal financial aid may also play a role. The federal government spends billions every year to help students afford college—in 2022 alone, the federal government provided more than $111 billion in aid in the form of student loans and grants.7 Federal financial aid is critical to bringing higher education within the reach of low-income and middle-income families. However, there is evidence that increases in federal financial aid have contributed to increases in college tuition by creating an incentive for institutions to raise tuition prices to capture more aid.8

Moreover, federal financial aid for higher education differs from many other types of government programs in that the federal government sets relatively few requirements for program quality or student outcomes for institutions that receive aid and sets no limits at all on the amount that these institutions can charge in tuition. In contrast, federal health care programs, such as Medicare, set reimbursement rates on health care providers that cap costs to the government.9 With few meaningful quality controls and no limits on what colleges can charge students, colleges have few incentives to control tuition prices.

Soaring tuition costs have resulted in increased borrowing and, prior to the federal payment pause, alarmingly high delinquency rates.10 Americans owe a total of $1.75 trillion in student loan debt.11 The average undergraduate student with loans now graduates with nearly $25,000 in debt.12

This year, the Biden administration announced a plan to provide extensive debt forgiveness to federal student loan borrowers. The plan would provide up to $20,000 to Pell Grant recipients and up to $10,000 in debt relief to non-Pell Grant recipients.13In June, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Biden administration’s plan to cancel federal student debt for tens of millions of borrowers.14 The administration immediately announced that it would try again, this time by conducting a rulemaking process through the Department of Education.15 If the plan succeeds, it could provide life-changing relief to millions of Americans with federal student loans.

While the debt relief plan would bring life-changing relief to millions, it would not address high tuition and borrowing by future students. Advocates have championed Biden’s America’s College Promise plan as one solution. The plan calls for increased public investment in a federal–state partnership to make community colleges tuition-free.16 This plan would bring higher education within reach for many more low-income students, but would not address high tuition outside of the community college sector. Other proposals to address high tuition and debt include the U.S. Department of Education’s anticipated Gainful Employment Rule, which would cut off federal financial aid funding for programs offered primarily by for-profit colleges that leave graduates with unmanageable debt or paltry earnings. The Gainful Employment Rule will create incentives for-profit colleges to improve program quality and lower tuition costs. However, the rule applies only to a limited segment of higher education programs.17 A more expansive policy is needed to address the high cost of tuition prices across all sectors of higher education.

Voters agree across party lines: the price of college is too high.

In our nationwide survey of 1,000 registered voters, conducted December 1–7, 2022, we found that there is overwhelming agreement that the cost of college is too high and that the cost of tuition has been increasing (see Figure 1). Our survey also shows overwhelming agreement that the high cost of college is the largest barrier to completing college (see Figure 2). The majority of voters report having had debt from student loans for themselves, a child, or other family member. Voters identify out-of-control tuition as a cause of unmanageable student debt. For many, concerns about the high cost of tuition led them to conclude the value of a degree from a four-year college or university is simply not worth the cost.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Voters support government action to rein in tuition.

Our research shows strong support for a government role in making tuition more affordable—a two-thirds majority of voters agreed that the government should do more to rein in prices (see Figure 3). Support for government intervention is strong across party lines. There is also strong agreement that the government has even more responsibility to regulate the price of tuition for schools that receive federal financial aid.

Figure 3

Voters support government action to cap tuition.

Our research found that voters strongly support government action to cap the price of college at schools that receive federal funding. A strong majority of voters—75 percent—expressed support for a proposal to cap tuition at colleges and universities that receive government funding (see Figure 4). This includes support among 81 percent of Democrats, 70 percent of Republicans, and 69 percent of independents (see Figure 5). Many voters indicated that they supported government action to cap tuition because such action would make college more affordable or accessible (see Figure 6).

Figure 4

Table 1
Do you favor or oppose a proposal to cap the price of tuition? 
Strongly favor Total favor Total oppose
Men 55 78 16
Women 49 71 11
Under 30 46 73 13
30–39 51 81 7
40–49 47 66 19
50–64 55 73 14
65+ 56 78 12
College 51 73 12
Non-college 53 76 14
Democrat 61 81 9
Indep/DK 40 69 15
Republican 46 70 16
White 53 76 11
Black 51 69 18
Latinx 48 72 14
Asian American 49 79 11
Native/Indigenous 71 83 3
Yes, student debt 54 79 12
No student debt 50 69 14
Figure 5

Nearly half of the surveyed voters said that the proposal to cap tuition prices would have a positive impact on people like them. Younger voters and voters of color were more likely to say this would have a positive impact.

Figure 6

What impact would this proposal have on people like you? Would it have: 
Very positive Total positive
Men 24 48
Women 26 47
Under 30 33 61
30–39 28 59
40–49 32 60
50–64 22 43
65+ 15 28
College 26 50
Non-college 23 44
Democrat 32 56
Indep/DK 18 43
Republican 20 41
White 22 44
Black 31 56
Latinx 34 62
Asian American 27 58
Native/Indigenous 40 58
Yes, student debt 28 56
No student debt 22 39

Over 70 percent of voters say the proposal for the government to impose a tuition cap either does not go far enough (30 percent) in terms of making education after high school more affordable or is about right (41 percent). Just 15 percent say it goes too far.

Figure 7

When it comes to making education after high school more affordable, do you think this proposal for government regulating and capping tuition prices at colleges and universities goes:
Not far enough About right Too far
Men 29 42 19
Women 29 40 11
Democrat 34 46 8
Indep/DK 28 38 13
Republican 26 37 21
White 30 37 17
People of color 29 49 9
Yes, student debt 33 42 15
No student debt 26 40 15

What could policymakers do?

TCF and LR’s research is the first research of its kind to assess Americans’ views on government action to cap tuition costs as a condition of receiving federal aid. The support for the proposal across party lines is striking. There are several possible models of a tuition capping policy. One approach could be a policy that sets a tuition cap for each program equal to the costs to the institution of providing instruction and student support services, plus a limited premium on top of those costs. For example, a tuition cap could be set at $5,000 above the per-student spending on instruction and student support for each program.

Another approach could be to set a tuition cap based on an estimate of what students actually pay for tuition and fees when they do not receive any federal aid. This approach would also lead institutions that have charged high prices because of the availability of aid to reduce tuition. For either approach, schools could be required to provide partial refunds if tuition was too high. A cap need not lead to programs losing eligibility for federal aid. Further, any approach can be designed to allow for colleges that discount tuition for students based on financial need, charging higher tuition to those who can afford it.

Whatever the details of the tuition cap policy, our research shows unequivocally that voters want the government to step in to rein in tuition prices. Policymakers should take note, and take steps to make this a reality.


The Century Foundation partnered with Lake Research Partners to design and administer a survey that was conducted online from December 1 to December 7, 2022. The survey reached a total of 1,000 registered voters nationwide with additional samples of 100 Black voters, 100 Latinx voters, 100 Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, and 100 Indigenous voters.

The data were weighted slightly by gender, region, region by gender, age, race and ethnicity, race by gender, college attainment, party identification, and 2022 partisan votes to reflect attributes of voters nationwide. The additional sample of Black voters, Latinx voters, and Indigenous voters were weighted slightly by gender, age, party identification, and educational attainment, and the additional sample of Asian American and Pacific Islander voters were weighted slightly by gender, age, and party identification to reflect the actual demographics of these voters nationwide. The additional samples of Black voters, Latinx voters, Asian American, and Pacific Islander voters and Indigenous voters were weighted down into the base to reflect their actual proportion of voters nationwide.

The margin of error for the total sample is +/-3.1 percent, and the margin of error for the additional samples is +/- 9.8 percent.


  1. Erik Sherman, “College Tuition Is Rising at Twice the Inflation Rate—While Students Learn at Home,” Forbes, August 31, 2020,
  2. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that the average cost of tuition and fees for an undergraduate to attend a postsecondary institution increased from $5,927 in 1990–91 to $13,677 in 2020–21, in 2020–21 dollars. See “Table 330.10. Average undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions, by level and control of institution: Selected years, 1963–64 through 2020–21,”
  3. Preston Cooper, “A New Study Investigates Why College Tuition Is So Expensive,” Forbes, August 31, 2020,
  4. Ajara Boulibekova, Nadeen Jamai’an, Jonathan Voss, and Nancy Wiefek, “Findings from a December 2022 online survey of 1000 registered voters nationwide with additional samples of 100 Black voters, 100 Latinx voters, 100 Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, and 100 Indigenous voters,” The Century Foundation and Lake Research Partners,
  5. “How to Make College More Affordable and Recession-Proof,” Bipartisan Policy Center, November 3, 2022,
  6. “[A] major factor driving increasing costs is the constant expansion of university administration. According to the Department of Education data, administrative positions at colleges and universities grew by 60 percent between 1993 and 2009, which Bloomberg reported was 10 times the rate of growth of tenured faculty positions.” See Paul F. Campos, “The Real Reason College Tuition Costs So Much,” New York Times, April 4, 2015,
  7. “FY 2022 Annual Report,” Federal Student Aid, January 23, 2023,
  8. There is strong evidence that increases in federal aid increase prices at for-profit colleges. See Stephanie Riegg Cellini and Claudia Goldin, “Does Federal Student Aid Raise Tuition? New Evidence on For-Profit Colleges,” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 6, no. 4, (November 2014): 174–206, DOI: 10.1257/pol.6.4.174; See also, Grey Gordon and Aaron Hedlund, “Do Student Loans Drive Up College Tuition,” Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Economic Brief, no. 22-32, August 2022,
  9. Chris Corrigan, “Treat Student-Loan Borrowing Like Medicare,” The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal, April 5, 2023,
  10. A 2019 Federal Reserve report found that among student loan borrowers with outstanding debt from their own education, 17 percent of adults were behind on their payments. See “Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2018–May 2019,” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, last modified January, 30, 2020,
  11. Alicia Hahn, “Student Loan Debt Statistics: Average Student Loan Debt 2023,” Forbes, February 22, 2023,
  12. “FACT SHEET: President Biden Announces Student Loan Relief for Borrowers Who Need It Most,” The White House, August 24, 2022,
  13. “The Biden-Harris Administration’s Student Debt Relief Plan Explained,” Federal Student Aid,
  14. Biden v. Nebraska, 600 U.S. _ , 2023 WL 4277210 (June 30, 2023),
  15. “Fact Sheet: President Biden Announces New Actions to Provide Debt Relief and Support for Student Loan Borrowers,”
  16. Biden’s America’s College Promise plan would provide new federal funding to states on the condition that their community colleges charge eligible students $0 for tuition and fees. States must also match a portion of the new federal funding with new annual appropriations. The total number of students who would be served every year is roughly 9 million, or about 37 percent of all undergraduates. See Peter Granville, “President Biden’s Free Community College Plan Matters Now More Than Ever,” The Century Foundation, March 30, 2023,
  17. The rule also applies to non-degree programs offered at nonprofit and public institutions that receive federal aid. See Robert Shireman, “What Does the Gainful Employment Rule Mean for Career Schools Seeking Access to Federal Aid?” The Century Foundation, March 27, 2017,