Sanders Right About Free Tuition, but Makes the Wrong Argument

Bernie Sanders wants to make public colleges free. nnHe’s proposed a tax on “Wall Street speculators who nearly destroyed the economy seven years ago” to pay for what he estimates will be a $75 billion a year plan to provide free tuition to public colleges and universities and provide aid for room, board and other incidental costs. The plan also calls for lower rates for loans that are needed and an opportunity to refinance existing debt to take advantage of lower interest rates.

Sanders has been selling the plan on economic grounds as a way to reduce debt and create a more educated workforce. But in framing the debate this way — by making it money and not about universal access — Sanders allows the issue to be framed almost entirely in terms of money. In doing so, he has allowed Hillary Clinton to counter with her own cheaper debt-free plan while also making the claim that Sanders’ plan would benefit the rich.

“I’m a little different from those who say ‘free for everybody,’” she said in October. “I’m not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids. I’m in favor of making college free for your grandson by having no-debt tuition.”

Clinton’s plan would expand access to aid and limit debt by encouraging states to work with the federal government to lower college costs, but it stops short of the kind of universal reforms needed. The notion that students need skin in the game to succeed — her argument — is belied by the results in Europe, where many schools are free and students do at least as well as in the United States.

Sanders is right about costs — the money sucked from the economy in the form of high-interest student loans is unproductive, as is the time wasted by parents and students researching the myriad loan and grant programs out there.

But the cost issue should not be driving this debate. College attendance needs to be tuition-free because college is no longer just an option. Traditional blue-collar jobs that paid living wages have been disappearing, and those that remain have become transformed, requiring at least some post-secondary education. The time when someone can graduate high school and work a middle-class job without additional schooling is all but gone.

We are living in a time that is analogous to other moments of educational change — the mid-1800s, for instance, when free public schools started to proliferate, the first half of the 20th Century when high schools became more and more accessible. In each of these eras, political, business and social forces redefined how much education was required and new public schooling options appeared.

Today, because it has become increasingly clear that a K-12 education is not enough for most jobs, we need to redefine the requirement again. Free public education should extend beyond the 12th grade — and not just for low-income students. It needs to be universal, the way K-12 schooling has been.

Other reforms are needed — slashing administrative costs, expanding and repairing classroom and research facilities, expanding the reach of open-enrollment community colleges, reimagining the relationship between college sports and schools, protecting the humanities, and so on. And we will need to pay for it — though it is important to remember that at least some of the money now tied up in the finance industry via student loan programs can be redirected to college classrooms, along with the inevitable savings that would come from streamlining administrative costs.

The point is to make college education a priority — and to make sure it is universal.

It is a matter of priorities.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2016

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