Candidate Proposals I: Sanders’s Free College

I’m launching this new series to coincide with the end of my presidential candidate profile series, which will end once I post a roundup of the handful of dropouts that I haven’t profiled yet. Here, my ambition is to offer my opinion and critique on some major policy proposals from candidates of both parties. Since I started mostly with GOP candidates in the candidate series, I’ll start with a Democratic candidate’s proposal here in the interest of balance: Senator Bernie Sanders’s plan to make public universities free.

When I first heard of this plan, I was somewhat skeptical of both the need for it and the practicality of it. My feelings remain the same. In order to be in favor of this proposal, I’d have to believe that the admittedly high tuition fees in this country are preventing students who can’t afford college from attending. Is that the case, that students from lower-income families are unable to afford college?

A decent bit of research would indicate that no, it’s not the case–in the words of that study, that scenario was “empirically unimportant.” Many states have programs to lower the cost of tuition–Georgia’s HOPE Scholarship formerly paid full tuition to students who kept a 3.0 GPA at in-state public colleges, and even with recent cuts to the program still covers the vast majority of tuition–and many colleges follow a high-tuition, high-aid model, where the sticker price is high but few actually pay that.

But what about the student loan crisis? A good paper from Brookings argues that the notion of the student loan crisis is somewhat overblown, because the rise in student debt relative to other forms of consumer debt should be viewed through the lens of rising returns to a college education in the workforce. So even though there’s a lot more debt out there, graduates are making more than ever before, which is important. The idea of students borrowing so much that it takes decades to pay off their debt doesn’t quite mesh with the data, either: nearly 70 percent of undergraduates in 2009 had borrowed $10,000 or less, with only 2 percent borrowing more than $50,000.

The practical limitations on Sanders’s plan are worth speaking to as well. As you know, public universities are run by state governments in the U.S. So Sanders must work in the constraints of our federal system. His plan would offer 2:1 matching grants to states to waive tuition at their public colleges, meaning that the federal government would cover about two thirds of the cost of making tuition free while states chip in for the remaining third. With an estimated $70 billion in total tuition per year, this means Sanders’s plan would cost about $47 billion for the federal government. It’s worth noting here that the Affordable Care Act offered states a 9 to 1 matching grant for the Medicaid expansion, yet many states still declined for political or philosophical reasons. So, even with the gigantic assumption that a President Sanders is able to get this plan through Congress, it would likely amount to a free tuition program for a smattering of states, while most states delay or outright refuse to implement it.

Overall, the plan is a well-intentioned but misguided proposal. A more pressing issue is probably in K-12 education, where an alarming number of students don’t appear to be ready for college, or in encouraging vocational and technical training. It doesn’t measure up to criticism, in my view, based on either its justifications or the practicality of implementation.

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