Considering that an average community or public college students graduate with nearly $30,000 in debt following by the standard 10-year repayment plan, a tuition-free education sounds very appealing. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed just that: College for All Act - a plan to make four-year public colleges tuition-free across the United States.
There is a reason this promise has such powerful appeal. College tuition and fees have surged 1,120 percent since 1978, according to Business Bloomberg. Medical expenses have climbed 601 percent, while the price of food has increased 244 percent over the same period, all of which puts an enormous financial weight on the American families’ shoulders, forcing many people to choose cheap labor over the expensive college education.
Free education could be an engine to advance critical thinking, innovation, creativity, and as Sanders said, boost the “best-educated workforce.”
"In a global economy, when our young people are competing with workers from around the world, we have got to have the best-educated workforce possible. And, that means that we have got to make college affordable," states Sanders in his College for All Act plan.
While these goals are the right ones, the reality is that Sander’s tuition-free college plan has enormous, glaring flaws and there are few reasons why getting rid of the tuition is an unrealistic idea.
Sanders's campaign estimates that the plan for free college would cost $75 billion per year, the cost which will be “fully paid for by imposing a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators,” according to Sanders’s website. Stock trades would incur a 0.5% tax rate, or $5 for every $1000 of stocks traded. Bond trading gets a 0.10% tax rate.
However, making education free does not change cost of college, or what institutions actually spend per student. If the history of college tuition is any guide, that cost will continue to grow. Moreover, enrollments will also increase, further multiplying the cost of college. Once the income from Wall Street tax will not be enough to cover the cost of tuition, states would have to face the tough choice of either raising taxes or cutting funding for their programs, therefore worsening the quality of education.
“There are 50 states. Each of them supports their higher education in their own way. How is he going to get each of these states to come up with all that money? Sanders’s plan just does not answer that question,” said Virginia Sapiro, a former Dean of Arts & Sciences at Boston University.
Besides the money limit, there is another reason free college plan is not likely to work.
Sanders argues that this plan, modeled after free college education in several European countries, will enable America to become “the best-educated workforce in the world.”
“Germany, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Scotland and Sweden have no tuition for college. Other countries have low tuition. We need the best-educated workforce in the world. Instead of spending endless amounts on the military, we need to invest in our young people." Said Sanders in his New Hampshire victory speech in February.
But would getting rid of tuition at colleges and universities, give the United States the best-educated workforce in the world? Probably not.
The United States currently has the ninth-most-educated workforce in the world, with 45 percent of the young adult population having earned some form of diploma or certificate, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Regarding workforce, the U.S. is above OECD average, following South Korea (67 percent), Japan and Canada (both 58 percent). All of these countries require students to pay for education in public colleges. In fact, Canada’s recent graduates have students loans burdens similar to those of U.S. students.
And while Norway (47 percent) and Sweeden (45 percent) do have a higher percent of workforce, other countries that offer free education, like Germany (30 percent), Austria (25 percent), Finland (40 percent), Denmark (41 percent), and Slovenia (37 percent), fall far behind the average percent. So whatever the difference in education system among these countries and the United States, it is clear that free tuition is not required to produce “the best-educated workforce in the world.”
Besides statistics, there is another reason Sanders’s comparison of U.S. education system with other countries is not very accurate. Public Universities in U.S. spend a significant amount of money on college campus life – gyms with pools and rock climbing walks, dorms, and funded student unions, clubs, organization, etc. German universities, for example, consist almost entirely of classrooms buildings and libraries. It is common for German students simply to commute in for class, and then leave home. So, if following Sanders’s plan to make public colleges tuition-free, states will not be able to fund new student organizations, dorm renovation, not to mention the construction of new dorms, which will be necessary since the acceptance rate will drastically increase.
While Sanders’s free college program might not promise as much success, as Sanders himself does, there are a lot of students who qualify to be accepted into college, but cannot afford to pay the tuition. Pr. Sapiro suggested that instead of making college education free for all, it would be better to provide free education only to those students who cannot afford it, therefore letting them graduate without student loans.
“We need more support that is federally and state supported grants for students who can’t afford education. Rather than making all tuition free, why not figure out who can afford this tuition and then establish funds that would help support these people,” said Sapiro