Disclaimer: The Prospect does not endorse any political candidates. Just throwing out some ideas.
If you’ve been keeping up with this presidential election, you know that Bernie Sanders (#feelthebern) has a plan to make tuition for public colleges and universities free in the United States. On its face, it’s appealing. The class of 2015 was the most indebted graduating class in history. Nearly seventy percent of graduates in 2014 had student loan debt, averaging to $28,950 per borrower. As a college student, it sounds like this is exactly what the accountant ordered (if I could afford an accountant…or to order anything more extravagant than pizza).
But as we all know from high school economics, these things are a little more complicated than they seem, so I wanted to take a closer look at Bernie Sanders’s plan and its potential outcomes.
Some of Bernie’s critics argue that he has no plan, but according to his website, he does, and it involves six steps. Part of it is making public universities tuition-free, decreasing federal student loan interest rates, allowing students to rely heavily on need-based aid and work study, and the other part of it–the “how” of the matter–is taxing Wall Street speculation, to the tune of $75 billion.
And let’s face it: You’re not a Wall Street speculator, and you’d love to not be drowning in debt, so you love this idea. It’s not purely out of self-interest, either. If you’re currently in college, you know that your future’s a little brighter than that of someone who just couldn’t afford it, and in an ideal world, everyone would have the same access to opportunities, regardless of socioeconomic status.
What Does This Mean For Me?
We’re not going to talk about whether or not this plan will “work,” because I’m not an expert, and whatever I say, I’m not going to change your mind. What we are going to talk about are potential consequences–good and bad.
If you’re a low-income student who wants to go to college…
Congratulations! Money will not be an issue for you when picking colleges, if you are satisfied with public university (and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be).
If you’re a high-income student who wants to go to college…
Congratulations to you as well! If you are satisfied with public university (again, there’s no reason not to be), then you don’t have to pay for college…and your family has more money for, like, a second yacht, or whatever high-income families do with their money.
This is where a large criticism lies. According to Cosmopolitan (admittedly not the most reputable source of economic insight), who interviewed economist Sandy Baum, this plan invests a lot of resources into students who don’t need it.
If you didn’t come out of high school super-prepared for college and are planning to attend a public institution…
Again, congratulations on not having to pay for college…but you may be on your own for academic support. According to the same Cosmopolitan article (and economics), money spent on people who don’t need it is, essentially, money taken away from people who do, and in this case, it could mean that money used to pay for students who could pay for themselves is money that is not used to provide academic support to students who need it–students who might be able to afford college…but might not be able to get through it. And when college is free, there will be more students who need help (because there will be more students in general), unless public colleges raise admissions standards.
So we’re left–potentially–with affordable public schools where not everyone can graduate, or affordable schools made more exclusive to academically okay students. And in either case, underprepared students are faced with a tough time.
But Don’t Stop Bernlieving Just Yet
Maybe free public schools will come with the cost of less students getting through it, but maybe not. Perhaps resources wouldn’t be diverted from academic support, but from the vast sources of waste and inefficiency in higher education. And if that’s the case, maybe we can stand to get rid of tuition for public colleges…