Bernie’s Free College Plan Is Neither Cheap nor Fair. There Is a Better Way
Free college would help better-off families more than poor ones and would be very expensive. There is a way to ensure more equitable access to college that would not cost taxpayers a dime, however.
Much has been made of Bernie Sanders’s proposals to provide federal funding to states wishing to make state universities tuition-free. A recent article in the Globe concluded that his plan would raise American taxes to a level on a par with much of Europe, while highlighting the benefits that free tuition would bring. While many people even in America might support higher taxes in exchange for a more equitable education system, there is no doubt raising taxes to the levels needed would be extraordinarily difficult in today’s political climate—regardless of who wins the coming elections. What’s more, making college free for everyone is actually not that fair. There is a way to make college far more equitable and affordable to the country’s poorest students without costing taxpayers a dime.
A bill hiking taxes by a whopping 8% of GDP to pay for free public university tuition (which would only be the case if all or most public universities actually did become free, which is doubtful) seems extraordinarily unlikely to pass the Congress of today or one in the conceivable near-term future. This need not be a worry, however, because free tuition for all is actually not that desirable if the goal is to make the process of getting a degree fairer. The most basic reason is that students from wealthy backgrounds are more likely to do well in school and get into college. Free tuition for all therefore means most of the spending would go on students in the top half of the household income spectrum. As an article last autumn in The Economist showed, this can end up happening at the expense of the poor if the increased costs are made up for, even in part, by cuts elsewhere. Evidence from Scotland, where tuition fees were abolished in 2007, suggests free college there actually led to a smaller increase in the enrollment of poor students than occurred in England, where tuition fees still exist. Free college is also one of the most expensive ways to improve access.
A mandatory sliding scale for tuition fees, with the poorest 10-20% of the student body exempt from fees altogether, would do more to further economic opportunity and would cost taxpayers nothing. As such, it would also be easier to get passed, especially if it only applied to public universities. Let’s say a state university with a student body of 10,000 requires $100 million in tuition fees to operate. The rule above would mean that, instead of charging every student $10,000, the university would charge the top 80% between $2 and $25,000 annually, with the median student paying $9,375. $25,000 is still a bargain compared to most private colleges and the university would now offer a free degree to the poorest 20% of its student body. While this plan wouldn’t require any new government spending, it certainly wouldn’t preclude it: Combined with Hillary Clinton’s proposals and/or increased state funding, it could be a fundamentally fairer way to fix higher education in America—without breaking the bank.