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Sanders is Right: Tuition-free Education for All

Randall PerezRandall Perez

Presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders has been promoting his plan to make public colleges and universities tuition free for all students. His proposal would subsidize attendance to public colleges and universities so that students, and in many cases, their parents, would no longer have to bear the financial burden of college.

In citing numerous countries that already do this, namely Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden, Sanders argues that his proposal is not a radical idea — I disagree. Making public colleges and universities tuition free would provide a massive overnight increase in access to higher education for millions of Americans who don’t go simply because they can’t afford it. It is a radical idea, and that’s okay.

In fulfillment of this policy proposal, Sanders introduced the College for All Act to congress on May 19 of last year. While this bill has yet to be voted on, it is not expected to garner nearly enough votes to become law. However, the bill does provide a clear outline of Sanders’ proposed vision for free access to public higher education in the United States. The bill calls for significant increases in federal higher education funding, a more streamlined student-loan application process, work-study reforms, a significant reduction in student-loan interest rates and a refinancing plan for existing student-loan holders. The act is completely paid for by an incredibly modest tax (0.5 percent on stock trades, 0.1 percent on bonds and .005 percent on derivatives) on Wall Street speculation.

While tax increases, even modest ones, are often a controversial topic in American political discourse, the price of higher education has risen to such a degree that the cost of financing an education is too great of a burden to put on individuals or their families. According to Bloomberg News, the cost of higher education has increased 1,120 percent in just the past 30 years.

I currently live in the state of Pennsylvania. The current tuition and fees for the flagship public university, Penn State, is $17,502. At the state’s current minimum wage rate of $7.25/hour, a student would have to work approximately 46 hours a week to cover the cost, and that doesn’t include any money left over for living expenses. When you add Penn State’s own estimated additional costs of $17,096 for those expenses, the number of hours a student would need to work jumps to just under 92 hours a week.

Obviously a student cannot feasibly work anywhere in the range of 92 or even 46 hours a week and attend school full time and be academically successful. This had led to a massive increase in student loans to cover the gap, with some financial analysts saying that the student loan bubble will be the next to pop. Not only could it conceivably cause another economic decline (although not as severe as the Great Recession), some economists have expressed concern that it may already be slowing economic growth. This is not a sustainable trajectory — something has to change.

It’s time for a national reinvestment and commitment to higher education. This bill would provide a very necessary influx of cash to a sector still reeling from year-over-year declines in revenue and budget cuts. As noted by the Center for American Progress, the Great Recession hit the sector hard, leading to cuts in per-student funding more than 40 percent in some states such as South Carolina and Arizona. At the same time, the economic reality of the recession led to large increases in demand for higher education among the general public.

In addition to the international examples Sanders has been highlighting on the campaign trail, there is a historical precedence for tuition-free public higher education right here in the United States. In California in 1868, the original charter establishing the University of California established free access to Cal (UC Berkeley) for residents of the state. In the years leading up to the establishment of the California Master Plan for higher education, some students fees were implemented, but the Master Plan once again reaffirmed that the University of California system should remain tuition free. That didn’t change until Ronald Reagan’s tenure as governor in the state. The system implemented an educational fee for residents in 1970, ending the tuition-free policy that had lasted for more than 100 years when the system was first established.

There is one aspect of Sanders’ proposal that seems laudable but will prove problematic in the long run. None of the extra funding for higher education allocated under the College for All Act can be used for administrative salaries. There has been a massive growth in the administrative side of virtually all institutions of higher education in recent decades, all while the number of full-time faculty in recent years has declined.

While some of this growth may have been superfluous, much of the growth surrounds increases in student support services. These services are designed to improve enrollment, retention and support for first-generation college students, nontraditional college students and students from otherwise marginalized groups that previously did not have access to higher education. Other areas of administrative growth, such as an increase in hiring of Title IX coordinators, are the direct result of new federal oversight and scrutiny regarding issues of sexual assault on campus.

As the recent breakout of student unrest at institutions such as the University of MissouriOccidental College and others demonstrates, students are demanding improvements on a whole host of issues related to campus climate and student support. Meeting all of those demands will require increases in administrative staff on college and university campuses, and that’s with the student population we already have. If Sanders’ proposal becomes a reality, millions of more students that were previously disenfranchised or denied access to higher education will be heading to college soon. If campuses do not have the resources to increase their likelihood of success, it will all be for naught.

On the campaign trail, Sanders has been arguing that access to higher education should be a right — I agree. It is time to change the financing structure of higher education to ensure access for all those with the desire to attend. Improvements to access in higher education require more than just increases in enrollment of students from marginalized backgrounds. The time for equity in education is now.


Randall Perez recently earned his M.A. in sociology from the University of California, Irvine (UCI). He recently left a doctoral program in sociology at UCI to pursue a professional track in higher education. He is currently working toward a master’s in higher education from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and working as a graduate assistant in the Office of Academic Resources at Haverford College. He can be reached at [email protected].

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