CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- A recent analysis of online conversations about President Obama's proposed plan for tuition-free community colleges, America's College Promise, indicates that a significant number of people oppose the plan because it lacks measures to help them and the millions of other borrowers currently mired in student loan debt.
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. The comments, which were downloaded from the White House webpage and the Facebook pages for CNN Money, NBC News and the Fox News program "Hannity," also provide a glimpse of the roiling anger and frustration among students and their parents that spiraling tuition costs are making higher education nearly unaffordable.
About 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.
Writers who vented about their children's struggles with student loan debt and those who posted comments on "Hannity" and CNN Money pages were most likely to be opposed to Obama's plan or tuition-free programs in general, according to lead author Daniel A. Collier, a recent alumnus of the University of Illinois' doctoral program in education policy, organization and leadership.
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.
Many of the negative comments expressed simmering resentment about the impact that soaring tuition rates and ponderous student loan debt are having on America's middle class. Many writers were frustrated that the plans being proposed by Obama and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders would do little to help current borrowers. Some writers expressed beliefs that the government had an obligation to implement policies that would help current debtors repay their student loans before creating programs that would benefit future generations of college students, the researchers found.
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," Collier said. "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."
However, a few respondents discussed their personal struggles repaying their college loans and suggested that the challenge had made them "better people," Collier said.
People who posted comments to the White House website were more than twice as likely to keep their remarks civil compared with people who posted to the NBC News website. Likewise, blacks were more than twice as likely to be civil in their exchanges as whites, according to the researchers' analyses.
"The vitriol was slung in every direction and was not exclusive to any specific side of the debate or political spectrum," the researchers wrote.
Co-authors of the study were graduate students Shubhanshu Mishra and Derek A. Houston, both of the University of Illinois, and Nicholas D. Hartlep and Brandon O. Hensley, both of Illinois State University.
The study, titled "Free College? An Analysis of Online Discourse about Making Higher Education Affordable," is a working paper soon to be published by the HOPE Lab, a translational lab focusing on college affordability that is supported by the Wisconsin Center for Education Research. Collier also will be presenting the paper at the upcoming annual conference of the Association for the Study of Higher Education in November.
The database created for the research project is available online.