Whatever your thoughts on Bernie Sanders, one issue he has brought to the fore is the crippling cost of a college education. Young people’s lives are put on hold, deferred, or dashed because of a college mortgage, and free tuition is a concept whose time has come.
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
“Senator 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 free society.”
“Education 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.
If 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.
The 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 1977.
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?”
Hillary 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?
It 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.