Is it time to make college free?

This year, two national groups have come up with plans to do just that. They both argue that it's not only feasible, but that it won't cost more than we already spend, as a nation, on higher education.

The idea of a free college education, which was featured this week in the online Hechinger Report, may seem like "la-la land," as one critic put it.

But the two plans dare to envision an alternative to the system we have now, which has weighed down a generation with over a trillion dollars in student debt.

One plan, sponsored by the Lumina Foundation, is called the "Free Two Year College Option." Published by two University of Wisconsin professors in April, it calls for providing every qualified student in the country with two years of schooling at a public college or university, free of charge.

The authors, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Nancy Kendall, argue that if we pool the billions of federal dollars spent on higher education (grants, loans, tax credits and so on), that would cover the cost "with no increase in federal spending."

State funds, meanwhile, would be "redirected" to cover books, supplies and living expenses, and students would commit to 15 hours a week of work-study.

The second plan, unveiled in June by a group called Redeeming America's Promise, would create an "American Promise Scholarship" to cover tuition for two- or four-year degrees for students from families earning up to $180,000 a year. It would cap two-year colleges at $2,500 tuition and four-year colleges at $8,500 a year.

Larry Pogemiller, Minnesota's higher education commissioner, is skeptical of both plans. The first, he notes, covers only two years of college, and subsidizes rich and poor alike. The second, with its scholarship, isn't enough to cover tuition rates in Minnesota. Both plans leave out private schools entirely.

"Theoretically, if someone was willing to raise enough taxes, yes, you could make college free for everybody," he said. But for now, it's an elusive goal.