Editorial: Free College

Editors discuss proposals to eliminate tuition at public universities

January 27, 2020

Since Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ first presidential bid in 2016, I have struggled to make up my mind on one of his signature policy proposals: free, universal public college. The 2020 Democratic primary has again ignited debate over the policy, drawing attention to the divide between the progressive wing of the party, led by Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the moderate wing, exemplified by former Vice President Joe Biden. Regardless of the candidate that I currently support, I oscillated between moderate and progressive views on public higher education until writing this editorial forced me to make up my mind.

My reluctance to take a position–or rather to fully embrace the brand of progressive policy touted by Sanders and Warren–is not uncommon. Several moderate presidential candidates are opposed to universal free public college. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, for example, argues for a need-based system wherein children of parents who make under $150,000 would be eligible for either free or reduced-price tuition. Biden has proposed a still cheaper option (for the government): free community college. After studying a variety of options, however, I have forced myself despite irrational hesitation to support Sanders’ College For All Act.

As Campbell describes, we have a huge problem with student debt in this country, one that has stymied economic growth and dragged a generation of Americans away from the promise of socioeconomic mobility. Logically, the best way to avoid this problem seems to be to give all students a free college option. Unlike some of Sanders’ proposals, the College For All Act has a clearly specified funding mechanism: a tax on Wall Street speculation. And the total annual cost of the legislation, estimated at 40-50 billion, would be about twice the budget for NASA. If we can send people to the moon (for some reason), we might as well send people to college. Moreover, the Act provides funding for student loan debt forgiveness and mandates the reduction of interest rates for such loans, which would ease both the immediate and future burden on debtors. On balance, the policy seems reasonable upon careful consideration.

Although Sanders’ current proposal (at least the watered-down version proposed in the College For All Act) has some flaws and might be a bit financially imprudent, congress should enact some version of it. It would put all of us a bit closer to realizing the American dream.

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