Opinion: Free four-year college comes with too high of a price tag

When Bernie Sanders proposed the College For All Act on the floor of the United States Senate in 2017, he highlighted a core principle of his democratic-socialist agenda: universal free college and student debt cancellation for Americans. Back then, Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, was expressing an unpopular socialistic policy that even the mainstream Democratic Party was timid to accept.

But times have changed since then. As recent as September 12, 17 of the 20 candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president endorse some sort of federal funding to create free college and cancel student debt. Some policies are more extreme than others, but the position has taken hold at the heart of the liberal agenda.

It should come as no surprise that as both parties have shifted more toward the extreme of their respective ideologies, more and more liberals have adopted the universal free college platform. But the overwhelming cost of this policy makes it an unfeasible federal position, and the unintended consequences of universal free college would ultimately harm the students that it is supposed to assist. The best solution is what the Obama administration proposed and former vice president and current candidate Joe Biden has continued – making community college free but leaving four-year public institutions as they have been.

The goal of universal free college is to help middle and lower-income level students create upward mobility by attending college and release millions of Americans from the burden of student loan debts that often go unpaid decades after a person graduates from college. 

According to the Economic Policy Institute, college graduates earned 56 percent more than people with simply a high school degree. Having a college degree can be the difference for a student between struggling to make ends meet and truly excelling in the workplace. Additionally, as Sanders explained on his campaign website, 45 million American citizens have some level of student loans, totaling at $1.6 trillion for all Americans. The average college graduate will leave their school with a diploma and $30,000 in debt to go with it.

While the importance of college is clear, creating a free college policy runs the risk of devaluing a college degree and forcing students who want to stand out in the workplace to attend graduate school and obtain even higher degrees than a simple bachelors degree. 

As Natalie Regoli wrote for ittana.org, “To earn an upper middle-class income, many students are finding that a graduate degree is becoming necessary. Free college could devalue degrees in other ways as well, from students deciding to cut classes because they have no personal investment to less involved with their studies.”

That reality, combined with the fact that more people will attend college if it is free, creates a culture where the college degree is devalued and no longer means as much in the workplace. In the same way that a high school diploma is no longer enough to succeed in many fields, a college degree would endure the same fate. In order to stand out, the most successful students would either attend a more exclusive and reputable private university or attend graduate school.

The larger problem with the universal free college plan is that the largest percentage of people benefitting from the system would not be the poor or middle class. Because there is a direct correlation between family income and attending college, more than 37 percent of students receiving free college would come from families making more than $120,000 per year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Only 7.9 percent of the free college subsidy would go toward students whose families make $35,000 or less. 

The best way to actually help students who cannot afford college is by making community college completely free. Community college is generally an option for lower income students, and giving them the opportunity to attend community college for two years completely free would drastically reduce the total financial burden of higher education.

According to President Barack Obama’s original plan for free community college, it would cost the federal government $60 billion over a 10-year period. Even the most liberal estimations of the cost is roughly $10 billion of taxpayer money a year.

Contrast this to Sanders’ plan, which would cost $47 billion a year and only cover 67 percent of the total cost of college, and it becomes clear that not only does the Obama plan more directly impact the students who really need aid, but also saves the federal government billions of dollars in the near and foreseeable future.

Ultimately, the plan is more economically sound and more specific in helping students who really need aid rather than providing free college to everyone, including those who could easily pay for college at almost no burden. Giving free community college to all students will create a stronger workforce and enable students from lower and middle-class incomes to get a jumpstart on their higher education goals without burdening their bank accounts. As Obama explained, “This is something that we can accomplish and it is something that will train our workforce to compete with anyone in the world.”

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