Why I don’t buy into Bernie’s tuition-free plan

“College tuition.” It’s a nightmare phrase for any parent. I don’t have children, but I have plenty of close family and friends who do, and I’ve been with them when the ones on the lower end of the economic spectrum say “We just don’t know how we will pay for it,” and when the ones on the higher end say “We can make it happen but good lord! It’s so much money!” The cost of tuition has skyrocketed. According to the College Board, the average cost today for undergraduate students attending a four-year college or university in their home state is $18,943 with out-of-state students averaging $32,762.

To pay for these exorbitant prices, students (and their parents) take out Student Loans. Compounding the problem, interest rates on these larger loans have also shot up in recent years, ranging now from a little more than 4% to almost 7%, depending on the type of loan, according to the US Department of Education.

Do you know who sets the interest rates for Student Loans? Congress. The place where Bernie Sanders has worked for the past 30 years.

So I’m glad that Bernie Sanders (and Hillary Clinton) are making this an issue today, but where has he been? I hear people chanting about a Sanders/Warren ticket — that would be terrible!  Elizabeth Warren gets it — she understand the power she has in her Senate seat and she is working to change the rates on students loans from the place where it will happen. In Congress.

Back to Part 1: Tuition.  Comparing public colleges and universities in the US with those in Europe is apples and oranges. Just like when we compare test scores of US k-12 to those of Europe. The reason being, we don’t fund them nationally – we primarily fund education at the state level, unlike the European nations we like to hold up as models of success. “No Child Left Behind” failed because while it was nice to say that every child in America – from Maryland to Mississippi – will read at the same level, those children rely mostly on state funding of their schools, which is not the same in Mississippi as it is Maryland.

Full disclosure here: I work for a public university. And the cost of tuition at my school is ridiculously high and keeps increasing. Where does all this tuition go? Well, for one thing we are a Big10 school, and the football coach’s salary is about $2 million per year. The men’s basketball coach earns about the same. The women’s basketball coach makes just under $1 million. Then there’s the Stadium. And separate practice facilities. And cable sports contracts. College sports is a big money game,  (and we’re not even very good!) and until we shine the spotlight on that fact, this fantasy of “tuition free” public college and university will never become a reality.  Bernie Sanders’ plan, according to his website, puts the cost of making tuition free at public colleges and universities is $75 billion. I can’t imagine $75 billion would even come close to covering what the total of tuition at public colleges and universities across the US does today.

And lastly, here’s a point that I haven’t heard anyone make yet, and it bothers me. Let’s say that in some miracle, public colleges and universities in the US become tuition free.  Do we then have a society where you have the “public school” and “private school”? Without any attention to the reasons behind the increase in tuition – at all colleges and and universities – and without a change in the student loan rates, the rich will always be able to go to private schools and the 99% will always be restricted to public schools.

Another disclosure: both my undergraduate and my graduate degrees are from small private colleges.  My parents helped me pay for my undergraduate, along with student loans, and I paid for my graduate school – along with student loans that I am still paying off. There is a lot of benefit to going to a small private college or university, and it should be an option for everyone in the United States. Everyone.  Sanders’ wife Jane is the former president of Burlington College and provost of Goddard College, two small private colleges. Sadly, neither of these schools would become any more available to students under the “tuition free” plan. Burlington College would still cost $23,546 per year, and Goddard $17,640.

Making tuition affordable is a realistic goal. Promising to make it “free” is just a campaign slogan – it grabs the attention of those who are currently burdened with tuition-related debt, but fails to address the real issues that have caused that debt to exist in the first place.

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