Sanders’ Free College Proposal: Pro

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

As most college students know, seeking higher education is almost always a debt sentence.

Opponents of Sen. Sanders say this proposal is the reason he has garnered the support of so many millenials. The argument that follows usually includes a combination of the terms “lazy,” “entitled” and “looking for handouts.”  This rhetoric doesn’t get to the heart of issue.

According to the Department of Labor and the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 1970s it took about a summer’s worth of full-time work on minimum wage to pay for public college tuition. In 1996 when the minimum wage in Washington was $4.90 an hour, a student could work 40 hours per week over the 12 weeks of summer and cover 72.3 percent of the $3,250 price tag for tuition at the University of Washington. Working the same schedule today would only cover 38.39 percent of the $11,839 cost of tuition at the University of Washington. Before taxes, it would take over 1,250 man-hours to raise the money just for tuition.

The statistics show that it is no longer feasible to pay for college out of pocket holding only a minimum wage job. Current college students are born ten steps behind past generations and have to work much longer and harder to pay for an education.

Sen. Sanders’ plan will help change that.

From cutting student loan interest rates in half, to closing the massive gap between the middle and upper class, making college free by taxing Wall Street speculation could not only stabilize our economy, but aid in the advancement of marginalized groups who would otherwise be most likely to fall into the debt trap.

According to a March 7 Washington Post article, African-Americans carry a large portion of the student debt load, because they are statistically more likely than white students to borrow for college and fall behind on payments. Four out of five black graduates from public universities take out loans, compared to less than two-thirds of white graduates.

African-Americans with a bachelor’s degree on average earn $19,000 more per year than those without a degree. Legislative moves like this can help to break the cycle of poverty affecting people of color.

While there are concerns that college students would take the opportunity for granted, slacking off and wasting the money spent on their education, it does not mean we should stray from giving anyone the ability to succeed.  Potentially wasting money on a bad-apple minority is a relatively small price to pay when hundreds of thousands more students can receive an education that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, and the plan can help mitigate students taking advantage.

 

The major concern is that making college affordable for virtually everybody could cause a massive increase in enrollment, which could have serious implications. Institutions would need to expand to meet the demand. Higher class sizes, as well as an expected decrease in personnel, could reduce the quality of an education. This concern is purely theoretical, as we cannot know how colleges will react, but the pros could outweigh the cons.

The legislation would require that all federal funding goes to purely academic projects, and not extra-curricular activities.  The extra funding could help colleges bear the brunt of the expected increases in enrollment and also help offset expenses for low-income students.

The plan could benefit from a delayed roll-out.  “A good place to start could be to make community college free and see how it works countrywide,” said Yusufu Kamara, a Clark economics professor. “The idea framework could be transformed into something easier to implement.”

If managed efficiently, free college would be extremely beneficial to the American people and the economy. Sanders’ plan is not perfect. It needs some tinkering to make it realistic. But the heart is there. And I think that with the right people, Sanders could come up with something great to make college affordable for all, and give us a future to truly believe in.

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