Why free college isn’t as radical as you think

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wants to make public colleges tuition-free, as do many other ultra-liberal policy makers and citizens. The plan is often lambasted by other politicians, including the other Democratic candidates, for being too idealistic, too radical and above all unfeasible. But do these claims actually have any support?

Almost every major player in the national political field admits that there are problems in our education system, in which exorbitant prices minimize chances for economic mobility. Even former Tea Party member and GOP candidate Senator Ted Cruz, who largely embraces laissez-faire economics, has also pointed out this growing challenge. The remaining candidates from both sides have proposed two alternative plans.

Many of the Republican candidates, especially Senator Marco Rubio, are calling for an increase in vocational programs available to both high school and college-aged students. These initiatives are largely supported by politicians from both sides of the aisle including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sanders. However, those initiatives are not enough to help increase economic equality and equity for a myriad of reasons. First, mass producing highly-skilled workers—particularly plumbers and electricians, the two careers vocational-endorsers love to tout—will naturally saturate the market for these jobs. Unfortunately, when there are more qualified workers than there are spots, those most advantaged—with connections and social power (i.e. not those who are supposed to be helped by these programs)—receive the jobs. Furthermore, we cannot tell our disadvantaged citizens that their only option in life is to move into blue-collar professions; we cannot turn our inner city schools into a boxed-in environment.

On the other side of the aisle, Clinton and former Maryland Governor O’Malley call for “zero debt” college, in which all students are guaranteed the ability to receive a loan if they need it. This proposal also ensures that the price of college is adjusted so no student is forced to take excessive loans, and that the percentage of income to be paid back to the banks by college students is decreased. Essentially, those who are able to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year still do suffer, which is how price discrimination works. This system is a temporary stop-gap that only exacerbates the problem as time goes on. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York published findings in July 2015 detailing a “pass-through effect” of 65 percent of federal loans on tuition. In other words, for every dollar the federal government granted in loan aid to higher level institutions, the average tuition increased by 65 cents, while Pell grants—the grants Clinton and O’Malley want to expand to cover their plans—increase tuition by 55 cents for every dollar given. Feasible plans to reduce college costs must not only offer short-term relief but also avoid increasingly exorbitant spending in the long term. Unfortunately, the current debt-free college plans do not account for the latter.

Enter Sanders’ proposal for free public colleges. His plan is far from perfect and does not include nearly enough details to be left unquestioned. The idea is costly—it would require states to increase their investment in higher education over time, which has fallen precipitously since the 1980s. The Wall Street Journal estimates the cost to be an additional $750 billion over 10 years, about the same price the US spends on the military every year. Besides, the labor market is saturated with college degrees already, which the plan does not address.

Sanders’ goal of free college would never make it through a Republican-controlled House. It lacks logistical specificity. It doesn’t address numerous systematic problems in our education system. However, when compared to Rubio’s and Clinton’s plans — which have faced much less scrutiny and attacks from the media and the public—Sanders’ is at least realistic enough to assert that the way we pay for college now is not working.


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