James Pezzullo | Syracuse University
With the rise of Bernie Sanders and the populist wing of the Democratic party, many Americans were exposed to left-wing proposals that had been shelved since World War II or earlier. With socialism – and its sibling, communism – making a comeback from a place of shame in American discourse, many younger people are licking their chops for one concept in particular: free college tuition.
This makes sense. The average college graduate from the class of 2016 went home with a diploma and over $37,000 in debt, and many sectors of the American economy are beginning to suffer because younger people simply cannot afford the finer things in life anymore due to crippling debt. To many, free college seems like an elegant solution: it levels the playing field, allowing the children of the poor to be just as able to pay for a college education as their silver-spooned counterparts; it leaves students without debt burdens, helping to solve the dearth of young people buying homes and other expensive goods; and it allows parents and students alike to stop worrying about paying for college and focus on getting the most out of their educational opportunities. Who, in their right mind, would oppose such a thing?
I’m not here to tell you that this will be expensive and a tax burden. Of course it’s expensive. Professors and administrators need to be paid, buildings need to be maintained, research needs to be done. College tuition is not arbitrary, regardless of whether you think money is spent recklessly – universities need money to survive and provide a quality product. To most proponents, higher taxes are a small thing when compared to the benefits of free education. No, the problem with free education is not affordability – it’s accessibility.
Many proponents of free college will point to the system used in many European nations as a model for America. Students in Europe, particularly wealthier ones, may end up paying some tuition, but the model is referred to as “debt free” because every student graduates without any student loans to worry about. The flaw in the European system that Sanders and his acolytes ignore is that far fewer people attend college. According to the World Bank, 94% of students in America attain to “tertiary school” – be it college, trade school, or specialized job training. In Germany – a nation famous for offering free tuition to everyone, even foreign students – just 62% of high school graduates continue their education in any way. Keep in mind that the average German taxpayer sends nearly 50% of their income to the government, compared to about 30% for an American. Therein lies the disconnect - Germans pay far more to fund their education system, and yet far fewer of them reap its benefits. Outcomes in America are better as well, as the median American household grosses $10,000 more annually than its German counterpart. To add to the complications, Germany’s population is less than one third of America’s, meaning an American free-college endeavor would be orders of magnitude more expensive if it intended to include everyone.
Another key problem is that under a free college system, the government decides who does and does not get an education. The methods we have for determining academic abilities are lacking, to put it generously. IQ scores, SAT results, subjective grades – these things already help to restrict access to higher education for millions of Americans. Is it really wise to suddenly allow these measures to decide who can get any kind of education? In a country where systemic racism continues to haunt our public institutions, do we really want to give those same institutions the power to decide who is and isn’t worthy of job training or a college degree?
Under a European system, it is likely that 3 of every 10 current American college students would be in the workforce right now. They would have gone straight from high school to the workforce with no training. Their career options would be dictated to them by the federal government, based on some arbitrary measure of their readiness for college. There simply isn’t enough money to send everybody to college, so we have to choose – do we want to send some people to college for free and leave the rest out in the cold, or do we want to send the vast majority of people to college and give them options to pay for it themselves?
I don’t know how to solve the student debt crisis. No perfect solution exists. But many people seem to think that free college is that perfect solution, when the results in practice are clear: a European-style free college system will mean the end of college as we know it.