Bernie Sanders has recently gained a lot of attention with young voters, particularly because of his plan to make four-year public universities tuition-free under his College for All Act. This bill would cost $47 billion per year, with 67 percent of the money coming from federal tax dollars and 33 percent from state tax dollars.
This amount is $15 billion more than the federal government spends on Pell grants each year for financially disadvantaged students. While the idea of free tuition sounds nice, and I agree that the cost of attendance at any given U.S. university is inflated, the notion of giving 12.3 million college students free tuition annually is frankly unrealistic.
Sen. Sanders often defends his ideas by referring to the German university system, which has been providing its students with tuition-free education for nearly 40 years. However, there are many flaws with this system. Germany is barely able to afford its education subsidies with a staggering income tax rate of 45 percent for middle- and high-income individuals. With many international students seeing the opportunity for a “free lunch,” they head over to Germany to complete their studies at little-to-no cost. Consequentially, it is becoming apparent that the university system cannot handle this flood of students. The funding is increasingly being spread thin and the quality of education and standards of living are suffering due to budget constraints. Only six German universities made the top 100 of The Times’ list of world university rankings from 2014 to 2015, compared to 45 American universities that made the cut.
While the idea of providing free tuition is seen as progressive, nixing fees for U.S. students could have the opposite effect. A free-for-all system eliminates competition among students and universities, and may breed entitlement. Without the pressure of financial burden, students may not be as motivated to work hard and pursue a lucrative degree. Some may enter college for the social scene instead of obtaining an education. Universities, having guaranteed funding, do not have to worry about producing competitive statistics regarding the quality of education they are providing. Money breeds motivation. If students don’t have to worry about their return on investment, then the financial burden of a useless college degree falls onto the taxpayer.
Government standardization of the education system has not worked in the public’s favor in the past. An example would be Common Core State Standards Initiative. All 50 of the U.S. states have such dynamic economies, and standardizing the public university system could have unforeseen consequences and potentially hurt a student’s potential.
Speaking of the future unknown, there are still many unanswered what-ifs with this proposal: What if students take longer than four years to graduate? What if they don’t graduate at all? What if a standardized college education does not prepare a student for graduate-level education? Will student debt be forgiven for all those who have already graduated? What do we do about illegal immigrants seeking a free education in the U.S.? Will unlimited access decrease the value of a bachelor’s degree, making higher degrees less competitive? Or what about the most important question of all: Why are tuition rates so inflated here in the first place?
Perhaps a better solution to the student debt crisis is not eliminating tuition altogether, but to examine what exactly tuition pays for nowadays. Inflation does not explain the exorbitant increase in tuition fees, consumerism does. In the 1980s, tuition could easily be afforded by someone working a minimum-wage job. Today, it takes several years for an individual to pay off debt that they have accrued from being a student, even for those paying in-state tuition.
The staggering increase in fees from universities nationwide is due to student demand for bigger and better things. Fancy new buildings, pristine recreation centers and hotel-style dormitories are becoming the norm, but are they really necessary? Will the quality of a student’s education be determined by these materialistic things, or by the quality of instructors and class materials? These are just a few examples, but regardless, these are all things students still pay for with tuition and fees.
The role of the U.S. government is to provide its citizens with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Nowhere does it imply that we must tax our own to provide others with the benefit of a college education, one that may not even end up benefitting the economy. As a country, we must do what is in our best interest for the long-term, and free tuition for all will not continue to drive our economy forward. We must trust the free market to keep producing better scientists, economists, entrepreneurs and everything in between to keep America as the No. 1 global economy.
Collegian Columnist Megan Burnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @megsbcollegian.