Point for Sanders: Why Tuition-Free College Works Better Than Equal-Burden College

higher education

Virtually everyone agrees that college tuition is too expensive in the United States.  But what should be done to reduce these costs?  How we got into the problem is not difficult to understand:  Demand for higher education has soared and government subsidies and student loans have proliferated rapidly, causing market price to skyrocket.  Schools have little incentive to control cost if anyone, theoretically, can afford to attend.

The only problem, of course, is paying it back.  You have to find a job that earns you enough money to pay back the loans.  That’s easier said than done in a weak job market, especially when wages are depressed due to automation, a preference for part-time employees, and an oversupply of college graduates.  And many students face a double burden:  Paying back students even when they don’t graduate.  They have the debt, but not the earning potential.

Bernie Sanders wants to make public higher education tuition-free for qualified students.  If you have, say, a 3.0 GPA in high school, you can attend a public college or university near your hometown.  It would be similar to public K-12, where tuition is free and where you go is based primarily on geography.  There will likely be some exceptions based on intended majors, since not all schools have all programs, and perhaps for athletics or other extracurriculars.  Like with K-12, there will probably be some wiggle room if you’re willing to lodge an appeal.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, does not want to make public higher education tuition-free.  Rather, she wants tuition to be based on burden.  Her goal is “debt-free” higher education, where rich kids don’t get to go for free.  The former Secretary of State advocates a plan where student loan repayments are limited, such as ten percent of post-graduation income.

Quartz has published an article claiming that free tuition is actually regressive and would not decrease income inequality.  Rather, the author alleges, it unfairly benefits rich people.  It allegedly harms poor people because they still have to pay for living expenses.  Allegedly, America would not be improved by tuition-free public higher education.

Fortunately, this reasoning is false, and for several reasons.

First of all, the notion that free education unfairly advantages the rich is rather moot.  This already occurs in public school.  Rich children and teenagers get a comparative deal by going to public schools, which frequently offer elite programs and AP and IB courses.  I am a teacher at a public high school, and we have students whose parents are millionaires.  A colleague has had students who requested to take their autumn final exams early because their families were going on ski trips…in the Alps, not the Rockies.

Perhaps all wealthy parents should be forced to pay a fee to send their children to public school?

Although this may seem reasonable on the surface, it quickly falls prey to a myriad of difficult questions.  Is there a progressive scale of payment for rich parents?  Does it account for current income only, or does it include previous income?  Does it account for wealth as well as income?  Do capital gains count similar to earned income?  How much does local cost of living factor in?  Would payments be adjusted for inflation?  If so, which measure of inflation?

Sure, rich kids are getting a freebie.  But isn’t this free ride, which already occurs at the K-12 level, worth it if it helps send more talented and hardworking, but impoverished, high school graduates to college?  And, to be fair, the wealthy will be paying into this system through higher income and capital gains taxes.  Mama and Papa Millionaire may not have to write tuition checks to send their kids to State U, but they are paying higher taxes that help fund the same institution.

The big advantage of free public higher education is that it allows the government to institute cost controls on public universities.  Currently, these schools are on spending sprees, funded by bottomless student loans.  These institutions can charge what they want, promise students the moon and the stars, and laugh all the way to the bank.  If students cannot be charged tuition, fees, and room and board, then the schools must “make mission” with the funding that is provided.

Though many people will be unhappy with the inevitable cutbacks, colleges and universities will quickly become more efficient.  Like K-12 schools, they will be forced to hustle and perform for their money.  Frills will be minimized and the focus of universities will transition from sports, Greek life, and luxury rec centers to academics.  Tax dollars will be spent far more wisely and consumers and producers will reap the benefits of college graduates who focused more on academics than socializing.

Making tuition free for qualified students will also encourage academic rigor and increase academic performance.  Giving everyone a complex and bureaucratic “debt free” deal provides little incentive to focus on academic excellence.  Instead of being able to get an amazing deal, free tuition, students would have to make the same semester payments whether they had a 4.0 or a 2.0 GPA.  This results in many students underperforming and risking academic failure.  Given our nation’s epidemic of underperforming college graduates, we need to find a way to motivate high school and college students to perform academically.

Offering free college to students who work hard is one heck of a motivator.  Promising “debt free” college to everyone provides far less motivation to crack open a book and study.

Under Clinton’s proposed system, we would continue to churn out underprepared college graduates en masse.  Colleges and universities would continue to grow and expand, focusing on frills and luxuries rather than academics.  The gravy train of federal student loans would only increase.  Students would rack up huge student loans debts and then only pay back ten percent of their post-graduation income…leaving taxpayers on the hook for the rest!

Frankly, I would rather pay into a system that fixes our higher education woes, even if gives some rich kids a free ride, than subsidize a broken system that transfers its inefficiencies and debts from graduates to taxpayers.  We need government controls on higher education to limit out-of-control operating costs, abuse of adjunct faculty, and eroding academic standards.  As a high school teacher, I can say that making public higher education more like public K-12 may not be pretty, but it will work.

That’s what Bernie Sanders stands for:  A deal for all Americans that works.  Bernie2016!



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!

One thought on “Point for Sanders: Why Tuition-Free College Works Better Than Equal-Burden College

  • October 18, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Well reasoned and well written. This will be helpful in explaining why Bernie is the BEST candidate.

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