The Flaw in Sanders’ Free College Logic

In a statement about his proposed College for All Act, Sen. Bernie Sanders wrote: “It is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Americans today do not go to college, not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it … other countries recognize that allowing all qualified students, regardless of income, to achieve a higher education is an investment in the economic prosperity of their people.” 

His words resonate, first because college is extremely expensive, and second because it’s true — the United States is uniquely stingy as well as downright weird about funding its higher education system. American public colleges and universities, on average, receive only about half their funding for instruction from the government; the rest is up to students and families via tuition revenue and private donations. Higher education funding is also primarily a state, not federal, responsibility, leading to wide disparities in both the cost and quality of a public college education on a state-by-state basis. State appropriations for colleges and universities dropped steeply in the 2008 recession and have yet to recover. Some state flagship public schools accept almost half their students from other states to generate enough revenue to sufficently subsidize in-state students properly. 

It’s tempting to use the success of free college in other countries as a model. After all, if it works in Germany (and Finland, and Norway, and Argentina) then why shouldn’t it work here? 

Illustration By L O’Dowd

The problem is in the implementation, not the idea. Most free college policies that have been proposed are focused on eliminating tuition for students at in-state schools, but do little to reduce the cost of room, board, and other expenses associated with a college education, such as textbooks or public transportation. However, the lowest-income students at public colleges and universities often already attend tuition-free: at City Univerisity of New York, for example, over 66 percent of students have their full tuition covered by Pell Grants and Tuition Assistance Programs grants. Administrators at CUNY Borough of Manhattan Community College estimate that New York’s move towards free education (the Excelsior Scholarship) will only affect 300–500 students at a school of nearly 25,000. 

Meanwhile, public colleges and universities mandated to go tuition-free may increase prices of room, board, and other fees to make up for lost funding. In that case, low-income students may be doubly hit: not only do they not benefit from free tuition, but they also have to spend more than they used to for everything else an education requires. Credit-hour requirements hurt students who need to work full-time while also attending school. These barriers are as crucial as tuition in driving up the cost of college and are critical policy tools left unaddressed in free college proposals like New York’s Excelsior Scholarship. 

Eliminating or dramatically reducing tuition at public schools makes those schools more competitive: who wouldn’t at least apply to their in-state public school if the tuition did not exist? An unintended consequence is that the resulting increase in selectivity favors students with strong high-school preparation. While highly selective public schools can offer strong preparation for undergraduates, students from underfunded high school districts may find themselves crowded out of those programs by students from better-funded high school districts, who could probably afford to pay some of the cost of a public school’s in-state tuition. 

The benefits of a national free college policy, as Sanders envisions it, would also create winners and losers between states, according to current expenditure on higher education. States that already fund higher education comparatively well will see some of their national tax share redistributed to students in other states, and states that choose not to fund higher education would reap the biggest reward. As a recent Washington Post article points out, this is mostly a reward for “bad behavior” at the state level. 

Lastly, what about the students who can pay? Should schools lose tuition revenue from students whose families are in top income brackets — revenue that they could have put towards expanded institutional financial aid, creating new academic programs, reducing the cost of room and board, offering on-campus jobs, or any number of projects benefitting their existing students? 

While I’m all for reducing the student debt burden, default rates on small student loans for students who graduate college are incredibly low. Research shows the student debt crisis is most acute for students who don’t graduate, who take out a loan and are responsible for paying it back despite not having received the financial benefits of college degree. Graduation rates at public community colleges are often below 30 percent. Making public college tuition free for all eliminates a vital source of funding — revenue that would be better put toward providing the support, financial and academic, needed to raise graduation rates at public colleges, especially for marginalized students.  

To criticize a free college policy is not to say that college shouldn’t ever be free, or closer to free than it currently is. As Sanders says, we disadvantage ourselves in the long run if we fail to make college more accessible for low-income students. But we need to be more careful, for the sake of the very students such a policy strives to protect. 


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