Whatever your thoughts on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, one issue that he has brought to the fore is the crippling cost of a college education,
and the notion of free college for all, at a minimum, for public
institutions of higher learning. Young people are being crushed under
the weight of student debt — their lives put on hold, deferred or
dashed because of a college mortgage — and free tuition is a concept
whose time has come.
President Obama got the ball rolling when he broached the idea, at least in small steps, by recommending free national community college.
Last September, the president said community college should be “as free
and universal as high school is today,” as he announced a $60 billion plan that could impact as many as 9 million people.
However, Sanders took things a step further by introducing a bill in the Senate that
would eliminate undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and
universities, which now costs about $70 billion per year, according to
Sanders’ U.S. Senate website. The legislation would provide $47 billion
per year, or 67 percent of that cost, with the states responsible for
the remaining 33 percent.
A matter of priorities
Sanders’ proposal is exactly what the broken U.S. higher education
system needs,” Alexandra Flores-Quilty, vice president of the United
States Students Association, told USA Today. “A free education means a
is the foundation of any country, and if we want to see this country
thrive, then everyone must be able to have access to an education —
regardless of their identity and regardless of how much money they or
their family have,” she added.
There is some question as to where the money will come from to
pay for such a plan. Sanders says his proposal is fully paid for
through a “Wall Street speculation fee on investment houses, hedge
funds, and other speculators of 0.5 percent on stock trades (50 cents
for every $100 worth of stock), a 0.1 percent fee on bonds, and a
0.005% fee on derivatives,” which he said would raise hundreds of
billions of dollars a year and also go towards job creation.
those details need to be worked out, one thing is for sure: This is a
matter of priorities, and when the U.S. wants to get things done, it
manages to find the resources to make it happen. For example, the
Pentagon’s wasteful F-35 weapons system,
a boondoggle if ever there was one, is $200 billion over budget, with a
lifetime cost of $1.5 trillion — enough to pay full college tuition for
all Americans for the next decade.
need for universal free college tuition is highly evident, and it
wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, public institutions such as
the City University of New York and the University of California system had free tuition.
A question of equality and justice
Today, at a time of rising economic inequality, a U.S. college education is among the least affordable in the world. Countries such as Germany, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have
free college. But in America — where if it can be monetized and turned
into profit, it will — our students have as much as $1.2 trillion in loans, which has surpassed U.S. credit card debt. Tuition has increased 500 percent since
1985 — public college tuition has increased 3.22 times over the past
three decades — while textbook costs have jumped 1,041 percent since
As poor college students face food pantries on campus, and states slash their spending on higher education, low- and middle-income households must pay as much as 76 percent of their annual earnings on college. As a result, education is out of reach for many.
Meanwhile, there is talk of the imminent burst of the unsustainable college debt bubble. Over 60 percent of
those who hold college debt in the bottom quartile of households, with
a net worth below $8,500. Moreover, student loans make up 45 percent of
federally owned financial assets. This comes at a time when the return
on investment on a college education is falling, and 10 percent of
people have trouble with repayment, as recent graduates face
unemployment, underemployment, and living with their parents. And when
the bubble bursts, will the government bail out the students?
Further, free college is a racial justice issue. When students at Harvard Law School demanded
an end to tuition, they couched the narrative in racial justice terms.
“The effects of HLS’ astronomical tuition fees are racially
biased. Due to the legacy of centuries of white supremacy and plunder,
people of color are less likely to have amassed wealth in the United
States, the student group Reclaim Harvard Law School said. “Therefore,
these fees disproportionately burden students of color, not only by
creating a barrier to attending HLS, but also by constraining the
career choices of those who do attend by saddling them with hundreds of
thousands of dollars in debt. How can Harvard Law graduates be expected
to advance justice or the well-being of society when they are forced to
make career decisions based on paying off this burdensome debt?”
Clinton — who has been losing the millennial vote to Sanders, and would
need them in November as the Democratic nominee — and others have
scoffed at the idea of free college, because nothing is free, it won’t work, and after all, why should Donald Trump’s kids have a free ride?
is true that nothing is free. Exorbitant and useless weapons systems
are not free, nor are tax breaks for the wealthy or cost-saving
measures that poison our drinking water with lead. As a society we pay
for everything for our priorities, either now or later. And the country
is digging an enormous hole for itself over skyrocketing college
tuition, for which one day, we will have to pay dearly.