Sanders’ Free College Proposal: Con

Bernie Sanders speaking at a Vancouver rally on March 20. Photo by Emily Hancock.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) has made free tuition one of his most prominent policy positions. He argued for it in a Washington Post op-ed on October 22, during the beginning of his campaign, saying free tuition would be the “driver of a new era of American prosperity.”

Preliminary analysis suggests that Sanders’ plan is economically feasible, if applied in conjunction with his plan to charge a sales tax on Wall Street transactions. A study by economists at the University of Massachusetts Amherst conservatively estimated such a plan would generate $300 billion annually, after adjusting for changes in investment habits caused by the tax. Sanders’ camp estimates making tuition free will cost $75 billion annually, higher than most estimates and well within the tax revenue projected by the study. Affordability is not the issue here.

But if we look to the examples set by other nations that offer free tuition at public universities, we see that fully subsidizing education will not guarantee higher enrollment, graduation rates or educational attainment among U.S. citizens.

Data from the World Bank suggests that with a college enrollment rate of 89 percent, the U.S. outstrips every country offering free college except Finland and Greece through 2014. Germany sits at 61 percent, Sweden at 63, Argentina at 80, Denmark at 81 and Iceland at 82.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development’s data tells us that the U.S., with graduation rates of just over 50 percent, loses only to two free-tuition countries, Denmark and Slovenia. No others even beat the OECD average, and Norway, Sweden and Germany are near the bottom with rates around 40 percent or below.

With postgraduate education, the OECD again tells us that the U.S. is tied with Sweden at 46 percent, beating free-tuition countries Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Germany and the Czech Republic.

The point of these numbers is not to show how amazing the U.S. is, but to show that free tuition at public universities is not a guarantor of academic success.

As we can see, the U.S. beat countries offering free tuition in some categories and not others. However, countries with similar or higher tuition than the U.S. beat it in every meaningful measure. If Sanders wants to improve the welfare and performance of American college students, he should look to and mimic the ways they teach and test their students, rather than simply lowering all barriers to entry and hoping for the best.

Countries such as South Korea and Japan surpass the U.S. in almost every metric that we can measure. South Korea has higher enrollment, graduation and educational attainment rates. This is despite having rigorous requirements in both secondary and tertiary education. Japan ranks four for reading and seven for math, where the U.S. ranks 24 and 36 respectively. South Korea charges similar tuition rates to the U.S. and the tuition rates in Japan are about half of those of American universities.

Sanders was correct when he said in a Vancouver campaign rally last March that college degrees are becoming as vital as high school diplomas used to be. While college is expensive, making it free might not increase our scores. If we want to have a better educated populace, we should instead follow the examples of Japan and South Korea and focus on bettering the systems we have.

1 Comment on Sanders’ Free College Proposal: Con

  1. Lakan Dane // May 16, 2016 at 1:48 pm // Reply

    “Data from the World Bank suggests that with a college enrollment rate of 89 percent, the U.S. outstrips every country offering free college except Finland and Greece through 2014. Germany sits at 61 percent, Sweden at 63, Argentina at 80, Denmark at 81 and Iceland at 82.”

    This is overall a decent article you’ve written, but this particular sentence is problematic. What you’re forgetting with this stat is that most students in countries like Sweden, Argentina or especially Germany get high quality trade schools education (apprenticeships) and thus have no need for formal college the way the USA does. College in Europe is more selective. Also the high college enrollment rate in the USA is hardly anything to boast about, in essence it means that Americans largely lack job or high educational skills from high school (which are much more rigorous in Europe, likewise lessening the need for college) and students feel compelled to enroll in pricey colleges.

    Thus the student loan debt bubble is $1.3 trillion in the USA, whereas it’s almost nothing in European countries, since Americans are basically forced into debt to get basic skills (most companies won’t even consider an applicant without a college background). And keep in mind, of all the American students who enroll in college, only a fraction graduate, yet those who leave college are also facing crippling debt loads.

    At the very least, you’ve avoided the common and annoying myth that Europe requires higher taxes for its tuition free education, which has never been true. Since college is run more efficiently in Europe, the cost is less, and in any case debt free graduates more than add back to the economy beyond what tuition would have cost– without debt, they can start their own firms, hire more people, spend more money. That’s the added benefit that tuition free colleges (which much of the US used to have) provide, which has been lost with the current shortsighted policy of debt financing for college, with graduates too indebted to start their own firms.

    Ironically, total taxes in Europe are around the same as the USA, and yet Europe can afford low cost college and health care, with no one going bankrupt from medical bills (happens to millions of Americans). Although Europe has higher income taxes, the United States has much higher property taxes, also locality and state taxes, and businesses in the US are much more heavily taxed than in Europe.

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