Bernie's Harebrained 'Free College' Idea
There’s no such thing as a free lunch, as the old saying goes, but is there a such thing as free college? There is if you believe the claims of the populist Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. However, even fellow Democrats seem skeptical, with several former Democratic chairs of the Council of Economic Advisers arguing his plan is harebrained. Sanders rebuts such claims by pointing to nations like Norway and Germany, where his ideological predilection toward democratic socialism holds greater sway, which are able to offer college tuition-free. If we could make college free here, as well, then why not?
As Economics 101 tells us, when demand for a good goes up, so do prices until they reach equilibrium. Yet despite the extremely high tuition prices at American universities, demand has yet to subside. Both local and international students have shown themselves willing to pay exorbitant fees for the chance to study at our universities. However, the tuition sticker price is highly deceptive.
For instance, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the state school, University of Massachusetts Amherst, is a more affordable alternative to its elite, private liberal arts cousin, Amherst College. And it is if you’re rich. However, the net average costs differ by less than $400 per year. According to the Dept. of Ed’s College Scoreboard, if your family is earning six figures, Amherst College will cost you nearly twice as much as UMass ($40,162 vs. $23,821). However, if your family is earning less than $30,000 per year, you will pay $1,936 at Amherst vs. $12,116 at UMass. Nearly 50% of your household income goes to UMass if you’re poor, while only 6% would go to Amherst. In this sense, tuition is actually a form of wealth redistribution, (voluntarily) taking money from the rich and giving to the poor in the form of generous financial aid packages.
Many commentators seem to lament the impossibility of college students graduating tuition-free by working part-time, as was possible in the past, and yet my own brother is about to graduate debt-free from UMass thanks to hard work and perseverance. While it may be harder than in the past, if you take into account inflation and the fact that many more students are attending university, things aren’t as bad as they might seem. In fact, you could say the system has become more democratic as access to higher ed has expanded rapidly from the elite to the common people.
In countries like Germany, there are typically much higher tax rates and lower college attendance rates than in the U.S. Furthermore, the international demand is higher for American education. These countries are simply different from the United States and have different needs and priorities. Attempting to emulate them when their circumstances as so different from our own will not bring prosperity. In fact, NPR's Jess Jiang interviewed expert economists across the political spectrum, asking them about the economic impact of various policies, and Sander’s tuition-free college proposal was ranked among the most economically unsound, after only Cruz’s Flat Tax plan and Trump’s plan for mass expulsion of millions of illegal immigrants.
American students’ woes simply won’t be solved by getting rid of tuition. If we did that, the biggest likely impact it would have is reducing the burden on wealthy parents of low achieving children, who could then happily attend state universities for free. If we want to maintain the same standards and growth rates without relying on tuition, it’ll cost us heavily, and even Bernie’s invasive Robin Hood Tax may not be enough to offset the enormous costs entailed.
The focus should not be on making college free for all, but rather on making college very cheap for those who cannot afford to pay. The system we have now isn’t perfect, but radical changes like those proposed by Bernie are dangerous. We need to find ways to increase quality and ease access for the disadvantaged. Low income students need more help in the form of scholarships and grants in place of high debt burdens. This is a massive problem that requires thoughtful solutions rather than political posturing.