Bernie Sanders is right: College should be free for everyone

No one deserves a lifetime of debt.

Bernie Sanders is at it again. The ubiquitously viral Senator’s latest move likely to appeal to the Democrats of the Internet generation involves a proposal to make public college education free. How would he do it? Simply by imposing a small transaction tax on Wall Street trades.

With college debt now having passed the $1 trillion mark, it’s clear that the current “pay beyond your means” methodology isn’t working. With persistent inflation and a crowded job market, something has to be done. And while imposing the Wall Street tax Bernie Sanders advocates for may or may not be that something, his main thesis is sound: It’s time to make public college free in America.

Although the exact amount it would take to pay for public college tuition has been somewhat disputed, one figure is cited most commonly. “Tuition at public colleges came to $62.6 billion in 2012, according to the latest government data,” writes Think Progress’s Bryce Covert. “That’s less than what the government already spends to subsidize the cost of college through grants, tax breaks, and work-study funds, which comes to about $69 billion. It spends another $107.4 billion on student loans.”

So, in theory, the government could get away with spending a little over $60 billion and be able to send the same amount of students attending public institutions now to their chosen schools for free. 

However, Jordan Weissmann, who has frequently advocated for free public college, also wrote a piece for Slate earlier this year where he observed that in 2012, Americans students actually spent $76.3 billion on tuition, which is more than the government could cover with their current aid budget. Ultimately, the roughly $8 billion difference between this budget and what students are really paying comes down to how money is categorized from state scholarships.

In the end, however, Weissmann still finds, “Either way you look at it, the federal aid budget should be enough to cover whatever today’s college kids are paying out of pocket.” 

In theory, the government could get away with spending a little over $60 billion and be able to send the same amount of students attending public institutions now to their chosen schools for free. 

But whether the total cost of tuition is closer to $60 billion, $70 billion, or somewhere in between, the biggest question remains: What about the costs of college besides tuition? American students, especially those from the lower rungs of the economic ladder, frequently end up in debt after they graduate college not only because tuition is so high, but because of additional expenses like housing, transportation, and supplies.

Although she hasn’t outlined a specific plan yet, many have speculated that Elizabeth Warren’s calls for debt-free college are designed to address these extra costs. There are a number of ways this could be achieved. For instance, previously proposed solutions for debt-free college involve students working a certain number of hours per week at their school to pay for their education.

But this is hardly the only answer. The best case scenario might involve a combination of state-sponsored education, for which Sanders advocates, and a tuition-based system designed to determine how much a given student can pay for college by need, in order to reduce overall debt.

In a piece for the Atlantic piece, Weissmann outlines it thusly: “The reality is that tuition is not the biggest expense for most full-time undergrads at public colleges: It’s cost of living. After all the other aid low-income students receive, Pell Grants and tax breaks often end up paying for their meals and rent. But if colleges continued charging at least some tuition for wealthier students, the money could be cycled back into living expense grants for the neediest.”

There are other possible solutions, too. One proposal designed by students in California would grant four years of state university free for full-time, in-state students with a GPA of 2.7 or higher, or for students who engage in 70 hours of community service each year. The lost tuition costs would then be made up with with a small surtax on Californian residents making more than $250,000 a year. 

There’s also a proposal from a nonprofit group called Redeeming America’s Promise, which would refinance existing federal and state financial aid and tuition tax credits into full tuition scholarships. Then there’s the F2CO plan, from The Lumina Foundation, which would give students at public universities the first two years of college free, while also giving them stipends and jobs so they can pay for everything else.

American students, especially those from the lower rungs of the economic ladder, frequently end up in debt after they graduate college not only because tuition is so high, but because of additional expenses like housing, transportation, and supplies.

The downside to any of these plans would be that they would almost surely lead to increased enrollment. This would be great for students but would also leave the government holding the bag for additional costs, as tuition already continues to soar even without major influxes in student numbers. The upside, however, is that if public colleges become more affordable, private colleges and for-profit colleges will have to become more affordable as well—in order to compete in the market. This would likely lead to widespread stabilization in the cost of all colleges throughout America.

In a piece for Bloomberg Business, Northwestern University Professor Harold L. Sirkin explains that fixing our broken university system is, however, only part of the problem. 

“I think it would be great if every American could attend college… but not necessarily immediately after high school and not necessarily the type of college that dominates academia today,” writes at Bloomberg Business. “The truth is, as I noted a year ago, ‘college isn’t for everyone—but work is, or should be.’ And preparing the next generation for success in the workplace… should be just as important as, or even more important than, preparing students for college.”

The essential takeaway in what Sirkin is saying here comes down to this: If we want to fix higher education, equal emphasis must be put on trade schools and community colleges as is put on four-year universities. Basically, we have to do everything we can to prepare students for the working world, whether that preparation comes in the form of college or not.  

However, students who have proven that they have what it takes to make it in a four-year university deserve not to be burdened with the inflated tuition costs, crippling loans, and rising debt that has devastated this generation. In most modern career paths, a degree is still as necessary as ever. And students who have the capability to get a degree, but who don’t have the financial means to afford said degree, should be given an avenue to receiving one.

That’s what free college is about. It’s not a state-sponsored initiative for every American to spend four years partying. It’s a way to ensure that our best and brightest are not crushed under a system that makes it hard for everyone but the richest Americans to get the education they deserve. 

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at Heave Media, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture.

Photo via COD Newsroom/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.