Defending Bernie Sanders’ Goal of Tuition-Free Higher Education


As the first Democratic Party debate on October 13 approaches, the gloves are starting to come off.  Frontrunner Hillary Clinton seems to have largely shrugged off her festering e-mail server scandal, but her popularity has not recovered.  The former U.S. Secretary of State has greatly eroded in the polls and has lost the lead in the first two primary election states of Iowa and New Hampshire.  The probable entry of vice president Joe Biden into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination threatens to cut her off at the knees, forcing her to fight for a dwindling pool of moderate and conservative Democrats.

Progressive challenger Bernie Sanders, the independent U.S. Senator from Vermont, will likely face some tough jabs from Clinton and her allies as the race grows tighter.  Sanders’ unexpected surge from marginal candidate to genuine contender has highlighted Clinton’s political weaknesses and raised uncomfortable questions about Washington nepotism and cronyism.  As the debates loom and a weak Clinton showing could be the siren song that lures Biden into the race, the former Secretary of State has much incentive to strike back against Sanders.

A first shot across Sanders’ bow appears to be a pointed jab about the Senator’s proposal for tuition-free higher education.  Clinton has criticized Sanders’ plan to make public higher education in the U.S. more similar to Europe as giving rich kids a free ride.  Specifically, Clinton has accused Sanders’ plan of allowing Donald Trump’s children to go to college for free.  The embattled frontrunner appears to be trying to play a little bit of class warfare, which is a touch ironic.  She wants to incense the middle class about the possibility of everyone’s taxes paying for rich kids to go to school.

Except, that situation currently exists from coast-to-coast in regard to K-12 public education.

No reforms will work perfectly, and the wealthy are advantaged no matter what.  They will enjoy tuition-free public higher education and universal health care, same as the non-wealthy.  But should we abandon commonsense reforms that would tremendously benefit the average citizen simply because a few will receive the benefits and not truly need them?  Are the wealthy not currently taking advantage of free public education, despite their ability to pay for private schools?

Trying to guarantee an equitable burden of payment in regard to public higher education will be complex, bureaucratic, and leave few consumers happy.  What is a fair amount for students to pay?  Is it based on family income?  Current family income, or over the past _____ years?  What if the student is cut off from family support?  What if family income changes while the student is enrolled?  Do tuition payments take into account national inflation, regional inflation, inflation at the location of the school, or inflation where the family income is earned?  Does only earned income count, or also capital gains?

Clinton is opening a can of worms by trying to create “debt free” college rather than tuition-free college.  Instead of opting for simplicity and universality, Clinton is trying to create a system overwhelming in its complexity.  By trying to jab Bernie Sanders for allegedly giving rich kids a handout, she is alienating moderates, independents, and conservatives by choosing a complex and controversial policy that still smacks of big government.

Tuition-free public higher education is simple, universal, and allows for government cost controls that will make higher education more efficient and productive.  “Debt free” public higher education is complex, leaves some students underserved, and does little to curb college costs.  Big money will still be in the driver’s seat.

The insistence on not giving rich kids a free ride could also bite Clinton in the debates if she is asked whether she would extend that logic to K-12.  After all, why shouldn’t rich kids have to pay for public K-12?  Proponents of universal public K-12 may balk at the idea of “debt free” college, worried that the government could apply the same principles to elementary and secondary education.  If we can do the math to ensure that everyone pays an “equitable” amount for their education, why limit it only to ages 18 and older?  “Debt free” college is on a slippery slope that could extend to K-12 in a few decades.

Yes, some rich kids may “unfairly” benefit from tuition-free public higher education.  But, inevitably, the rich are unfairly advantaged by all government systems and programs.  They have the social capital and resources to take maximum advantage of everything the government offers.  We should not punish the many to thumb our noses at the few.  Tuition-free public higher education should exist for all qualified students, regardless of income.



Calvin Wolf

By day, Calvin Wolf is a high school social studies teacher. By night, he is a freelance writer and novelist, penning political thrillers and commentary on politics, education, economics, foreign policy, and culture. In the past, he's worked as a professional cartoonist and as a backpacking guide. He once stood between a mother bear and her cub and emerged unscathed!

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