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Bernie Sanders’ free tuition plan will not happen

Megan Burnett
Megan Burnett

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 or on Twitter @megsbcollegian.

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  • S

    Sebastiane EbatamehiSep 10, 2015 at 11:09 am

    is not a privilege but a right. Rather than campaign with promises of
    making Universities tuition-free, I believe already established
    tuition-free Universities like University of the People
    be supported and positioned globally as the alternative to the rising
    cost of education worldwide. I am one of the over 2,000 students from
    160 countries benefiting from UoPeople
    – the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited American
    online University which offers all qualified and eligible students a
    tuition-free, accredited University degree.

  • K

    KedterSep 8, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Megan Burnett, your characterization of the German university system is grossly inaccurate on many levels. First of all your tiresome and incorrect claim about Germany’s tax burden, or being “barely able” to afford it (completely wrong, universities in Germany and many other countries have been free or near-free for decades– including the US until the 1980s). That’s a common myth, in fact German middle-class taxpayers actually tend to have a slightly lower total tax burden than Americans, and even for higher brackets it’s not that much different between the two countries. What you’re forgetting is that the USA has a much greater range of taxes than Germany does, things like payroll taxes, property and local, state taxes which Germany doesn’t have, so the total tax levels tend to even out.

    You clearly show your ignorance though when you cite supposed rankings of universities across countries and some lame reference to number of universities in the top 100. Such rankings are laughed at as nothing more than a widely publicized joke that you’ve apparently fallen for– these are ludicrous apples and oranges comparisons because the universities in different countries are structured so differently (particularly in the way they do research), so they can’t be compared with each other. For example, research in Germany is among the best in the world, which I know because my own company and the professors I team up with (many from the Ivy Leagues and other top US public and private universities) regularly make reference to advances coming from German labs. Yet these German research accomplishments don’t “enhance” the ranking of German universities because it’s not done “at” the universities’ own campuses, rather it’s done at places like the Fraunhofer or Max-Planck-Institutes that aren’t attached to any given universities. The Germans (and most other countries, truthfully) have found this arrangement to be far more efficient and effective than the “on campus” research model of US and British universities, but because the university rankings you cite consider only on-campus research in increasing a university’s rankings, this extraordinary accomplishments don’t “count” for European universities. Which is obviously ridiculous and shows the rankings to be useless.

    Plus, universities in Germany tend to distribute top professors and students on different campuses rather than clustering them in a few especially well-known campuses (like the US Ivy Leagues), which also artificially pushes down their apparent rankings even though the overall quality of the universities there is higher. You’re only a junior right now, but I suggest for future reference that you do a better job of researching an important topic like this before putting out an article that clearly shows you haven’t done your homework on it.

    • C

      CantdecideonanameSep 8, 2015 at 4:56 pm

      Your comment has off as quite smug with your “ignorant
      accusations”, especially because it seems like your entire line attack targets
      one paragraph citing the comparison of paying for college in the US vs
      Germany. Nowhere does she state a
      falsehood, the rankings she cites are correct and the percentage she gave for
      German income tax is also correct. You call her ignorant based on how much of
      her opinion is weighted on university rankings vs yours. Nowhere in your response did you address the
      validity of the theme of the column; you simply cherry picked one point and
      extrapolated it into a diatribe as long as the article itself. You gave a few compelling arguments in how we
      should reexamine these rankings… but that’s not what the article is about.

      Even conceding that there is much more nuance to
      the argument on US v GER, 1 portion of the argument, the fact of the matter is
      you are trolling a college newspaper editorial 2 weeks into school. This is not the New York Times, and as she is
      a microbiology major so I highly doubt that for a weekly editorial column she
      has 50 hours to spare each week to research the intricacies of the per capita
      burden through the different layers of taxation in each country. (on a side note It is funny though how
      publications like the Times will issue editorials admonishing the gender pay gap, women earning 77 cents on
      the dollar etc., all the while neglecting to mention variables like profession,
      hours worked, years of experience, job gaps, etc. I agree with you that statistics can be
      misleading, but it looks as if she is at least on par with the paper of record’s

      Is it not fair to infer that the same reason
      that companies and corporations are being started more so in countries like
      Germany is because other variables such as our corporate tax rates are 50%
      higher than in places like Germany. Once
      you start bringing in quality of life arguments and the overall economy you are
      delving into a much more complex discussion and you cannot attribute performance
      of economies as a whole, just to the economics of higher education.

      I do appreciate that you recognize that taxes
      are ultimately passed through to average citizen. I don’t know where you came up with the lower
      tax burden per person us v Germany, I am not accusing you of lying but some
      sort of citation would help solidify your argument. Either way this reinforces the truth that
      there is nothing for free. If we were to
      do what sanders wants we would have to find room in the budget. For one I don’t believe in the cost
      projections he gave…something about politicians as well as the CBO always being
      wrong underestimating by vast $$$ amounts how much these programs cost.

      Also are there statistics on what percentage of
      international students stay in Germany vs goes home? Are there figures on what percentages
      stay for longer intervals, 5 years, 10 years etc. What percentage of international students who
      don’t originate in 3rd world countries stay vs those who may be
      considered educational tourists from the US? (might give us an idea of who
      wants to stay in Germany because it’s simply a better place to live than say
      Bangledesh, vs those who had it fine back home but just wanted education on the
      German taxpayers dime) Again, not accusing you of being inaccurate, rather i
      just wanted to see what we are working with?

      The irony in all of this is all that your
      response did was further validate her argument.
      Bernie Sanders is not arguing for 4 year undergraduate tuition for a
      select few elite, and the rest will be assigned to a trade school; he is
      selling this idea as anyone who can get into college should get 4 years tuition
      paid for. Again, this column’s viewpoint
      is that it is not feasible for our government to pay for 4 year college tuition
      for anyone who wants to go. Sander’s
      rhetoric would not sound as rosy if he were to say “lets be like Germany! Where
      standardized tests determine what percentage of you is worthy enough for
      college; as for the rest of you, the government knows best as to what
      profession to train you in.”

      This article is a breath of fresh air when it
      comes to what I have been seeing out of Universities. What we need to see is more open discussion
      like paragraph #6, where the reader is invited to think for themselves, as
      opposed to the line of thinking that “you’re
      only a junior now”, which I interpreted as “you haven’t had enough time in
      school to be been force-fed what to
      think” .

      Finally, wouldn’t you say it is the pot calling
      the kettle black… it seemed quite “ignorant of you” to neglect rules 1 and 2 of
      the comment section guidelines ( and no, I didn’t call you smug, I called your
      comment smug so I would say that my statement fell within the aforementioned

  • G

    Greg WSep 8, 2015 at 9:38 am

    only allow U.S. citizens to receive free tuition to counter your Germany comparison, easy fix, and Bernie has said that he plans to get most of the funding through taxing wall street speculation; as for your point of no competition or motivation to do well? with everyone having a chance to get a degree it will be that much more important to have better grades in college to stand out after

  • W

    Wess RobertsSep 8, 2015 at 9:24 am

    Pell grants do very little to reduce the overall cost of tuition; loans make up the bulk of the assistance received from the federal government, and these loans are turning ridiculous, almost despicable profits. Perhaps these accrued profits can be used as an investment, even. The point is, if covering tuition for everyone would only cost $15 billion more on top of the billions already distributed in small, ineffective Pell grants, it would seem to be a great value and well worth the extra cost.