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Sanders’ free tuition plan is a question of priorities, not feasibility

Sean Kennedy
Sean Kennedy

Recently, my colleague Megan Burnett discussed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ bill proposal to make college free in the United States, arguing that it is not feasible. I disagree. Sanders’ proposal to fund free college education in the United States is a viable option, and its implementation merely comes down to a question of national priorities.

The United States has the necessary funds already to pay for such a program. However, it would require appropriating significant funds from other areas in the budget. In her argument against the proposal, Burnett refers to Sanders’ comparisons to the German education system, arguing that the United States would need to increase taxation to levels comparable to Germany’s in order to afford free college education. However, that can be easily avoided by making cuts to our bloated military budget.

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The United States has the largest military budget in the world by a considerable amount, and can readily afford big cuts while still outspending other countries. The United States spent $610 billion on their military last year compared to Germany’s $45 billion allocation. In context of the economy of each nation, the United States spent 3.5 percent of its GDP on military last year, compared to Germany’s 1.2 percent. Sanders’ plan sounds exorbitantly expensive at $47 billion, but it would only require 7.7 percent of the money allocated to the military in order to be funded.

Funding aside, the question of this proposal comes down to values. Do you prefer making college education accessible for future generations, or continuing expensive, imperialistic policy abroad? If you’re like me, and you believe that the top officials involved with the invasion and decades-long attack on Middle Eastern countries like Cheney, and that Bush and Obama should be convicted for war crimes, then the answer seems pretty obvious. We should be allocating money to educating our populace instead of endangering the lives of citizens by pursuing a warped version of the Truman Doctrine abroad.

However, if Sanders’ education proposal is enacted, we should pay close attention to how the allocation of funds impacts the success of American higher education long term. While I disagree with Burnett that a free-for-all university system would be inherently bad for academic quality, I agree that we need to scrutinize how tuition is used by universities, because the United States also happens to lead the world in spending on education. But unlike with our military spending, we do not see the same level of results. American students, despite receiving the most funding on a per-student basis than any country, struggle to lead the worldwide pack in achievement – particularly in math and science. Any significant boost to education funding should be coupled with greater study of our education system to improve the efficiency of the funding.

While Burnett asserts that the rise in college tuition might be attributed to students’ materialism, there are other areas we can look to first, such as the dramatic climb in administrative positions and salaries at universities nationwide. If higher education is to be fully funded, it should be streamlined to get the most of taxpayer money. Sanders’ free tuition plan is certainly feasible with current levels of funding, as long as Washington can re-appropriate their budget to better represent the interests of the working class. However, any significant increase to higher education funding should be coupled with greater attention to the state of the American education system as a whole.

Sanders’ proposal is definitely not an end-all solution, but it can be a step in the right direction if done so diligently.

Collegian Senior Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at letters@collegian.com or on Twitter @seanskenn.

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    BellammineSep 20, 2015 at 4:51 pm

    Great article on this topic, Sean. As a CSU alumnus myself I was frankly horrified by Megan Burnett’s embarrassingly poor article– it was so riddled with incorrect information and poor reasoning that it cast my alma mater in a shameful light, and now you’ve responded with a well thought-out corrective. In fact I’d add to your points here that Germany’s tax burden isn’t even higher than the USA’s at all, that’s an often quoted falsity that unthinking ideologues like Burnett carelessly repeat. When you go across the different tax classes in Germany, you’ll find that overall taxes in Germany are close to the same levels, or sometimes even a tad below the US equivalents, after all Americans also have to pay scads of taxes at state and local levels (plus some nasty taxes for small businesses) which Europeans don’t have to worry about. Obviously this varies from state to state in the USA, but in general. Americans don’t have lower taxes than Germans, ours are often a little higher. (It does like the commenters already nailed Burnett for this piece of misinformation but it’s always good to drum the message in.) Germans simply use their tax money more efficiently, with better health care and education at much lower cost than the turgid US system.

    As you say it’s an issue of priorities in the US budget, though I’d also add that it’s not just the military where US taxes are poorly allocated, the United States also has the most expensive health care system in the world with some of the poorest outcomes, in part because the USA uses an antiquated health insurance system while other countries have no such middleman and provide care direct. America also spends trillions on farm subsidies and on bailing out corrupt Wall Street bankers, which is trillions it could instead use to provide education for its students. There are reports now that Germany and other countries, in both Europe and South America, are already heavily brain-draining talent out of the USA thanks to their cheap or free college education system. This trend will only pick up speed so long as the US stubbornly fails to reform.

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