Should College Be Free in America?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

It’s easy to point out the problems with the American education.

From elementary school through college, more money is spent per child on education in the United States than in nearly any other country in the world. The most recent available data shows that the U.S. spent $15,171 per student in 2011. By comparison, the average bill in other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development was just $9,313. To be clear, these figures include what everyone, not simply the government, pays. That figure includes higher education expenses, which are notoriously more expensive here than anywhere else in the world. Even excluding higher education costs, the U.S. spends more than all but Switzerland, Norway, and Luxembourg. Even worse, the countries with lower education costs post better scores on international tests. Specifically, 15-year-old students from Poland, Finland, and South Korea — countries that spend less than the U.S. on education — outperform American students.

Reforming the entire American education system in one move is a logistical nightmare, and politically, it is a pipe dream. Given how complicated a complete overhaul of the entire system would be, most politicians suggest piecemeal reforms. When the government looks to improving primary and secondary schooling, it usually looks to improving standards. George W. Bush implemented No Child Left Behind; Barack Obama’s administration supported the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Increasingly, higher education has seen more radical solution to lower the cost, not for the government, but for American families.

Both Obama and Bernie Sanders, Democratic presidential nominee and Independent Senator from Vermont, have proposed to make college free. And for this post, we are analyzing education reform only through the concept of offering free tuition because it is key to the broader conversation that is expected to dominate the 2016 presidential election, the conversation about income inequality. Plus, addressing the problem of college expense is a major step toward solving the student loan debt crisis.


Source: Win McNamee/Getty Images News

What is Bernie Sanders’ plan?

Sanders has proposed to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. Remember, Obama also floated a plan in January to make two years of community college free, at a cost of $80 billion over ten years. His reasoning? “Nearly a century ago, a movement that made high school widely available helped lead to rapid growth in the education and skills training of Americans, driving decades of economic growth and prosperity. America thrived in the 20th century in large part because we had the most educated workforce in the world,” argued a White House fact sheet.

“Today, total tuition at public colleges and universities amounts to about $70 billion per year. Under the College for All Act, the federal government would cover 67% of this cost, while the states would be responsible for the remaining 33% of the cost,” reads Sanders’s plan. His College for All Act would be “fully paid for” by imposing a Robin Hood tax on Wall Street, or a package of fees on investment houses, hedge funds, and other speculators. “It has been estimated that this provision could raise hundreds of billions a year which could be used not only to make tuition free at public colleges and universities in this country, it could also be used to create millions of jobs and rebuild the middle class of this country,” he noted.

Because most see Sanders as a protest candidate dedicated to highlighting the inequality in American society, with no chance of winning the party’s nomination let alone the White House, there may be little reason to deconstruct his plan. However, the idea of a free college education should be discussed, not because of its political implications, but because the U.S. education needs reform.

What flaws does this proposal have?

The idea that America should have the best-educated citizens in the world may not be radical, and Germany made its universities tuition free this year, but arguments against such a proposal are compelling. Not only is free college extremely expensive, but we can highlight five more subtle problems with the concept of free tuition.

 1) “The proposal will cut the economic legs out from underneath innovations such as open online courses, which may be on the cusp of delivering low-cost, high-quality college education for all,” as Dmitri Mehlhorn wrote in a piece for The Daily Beast.

2) Injecting what Mehlhorn calls “guaranteed money” into the educations system will accelerate cost inflation for ancillary services like room, board, and textbooks.

3) It is clear that Sanders wants to lift the massive burden of the $1.2 trillion in debt that more than 40 million Americans need to pay back to the federal government for their post-secondary education. But student loan debt is not the problem the left makes it out to be, according to Daily Beast contributor Nick Gillespie, who argued that the benefits of earning the college degree far outweigh decades of debt. The latest numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) show that total tuition, fees, room, and board at four-year colleges for the 2012–13 academic year came to $23,872 on average. That represents roughly a two-fold increase from 1985’s costs in inflation-adjusted dollars. Meanwhile, depending on the type of degree and later career, a college degree typically increases lifetime earnings between $280,000 and $1 million.

Of course, the system is not perfect; student loan debt is a problem. Economist Sue Dynarski has argued there is not a student loan crisis but a “repayment crisis” because student loans are paid “when borrowers’ earnings are lowest and most variable. But, as she noted in her Brookings paper, that can be remedied with a “well-structured” income-based repayment structure, longer than the current 10-year timeline.

4) Mehlhorn also contended that making college education free of costs primarily benefits upper-class Americans, arguing that this strategy will not “immediately change who gets into college.” According to 2013 statistics from the Pell Institute, those from high-income families were 8 times more likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree by age 24 than those from low-income families. Or, in other words, students from the highest income quartile accounted for 77% of degrees conferred, while students from the lowest quartile accounted for just 9%. There is no doubt this is a telling statistic, but it should be noted that Pell only looked at students who were dependents, meaning the data sheds a limited perspective on which students can afford college.


Source: Pell Institute

5) Perhaps the most compelling argument Mehlhorn makes is that the $70 billion that Sanders’s College for All Act would cost could be better spent elsewhere; it could cover providing a top-quality preschool education to three- and four-year-old children who do not currently attend. And, arguably, that tactic could put the United States on stronger educational footing.

Of course the idea of spending more money on education is, at best, controversial. After all, the U.S. government — including federal, state, and local — will spend $922.6 billion on education this year. But despite these arguments against free college tuition, they still reveal that the American education system needs reform.

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