Stop Calling it “Free” College
Tuition-free higher education does have its costs, but how we pay for it is no mystery
Bernie Sanders recently introduced a proposal to Congress along with Elizabeth Warren, Keith Ellison, and other members of Congress, which would allow for most students to attend public higher education institutions without having to pay tuition. The main stipulation for this bill is that for students to be eligible, they must come from a home that pulls in no more than $125,000 in combined income.
Considering that we are the richest country in the history of the world, and many other countries cover one-hundred percent of tuition (or close to it) just fine, this plan is clearly a compromise — but it is a large step in the right direction. It would cover tuition for the majority of students, and ease the burden of education costs for millions of families.
Financial concerns with “free tuition” are expected, but the skepticism does not bear out. Tuition-free higher education is a far better financial decision than what we have now: $1.2 trillion in student debt.
Each public dollar spent on education yields a greater return to the economy. UC Berkeley researchers found, for example, that “for every dollar the state invests, it receives a $4.50 return.”
But so long as universities know that students can and will pay for their tuition using student loans, tuition prices will continue to rise. Higher education has become a greater debt sentence over the years, and will continue in that direction if it goes on operating like a for-profit enterprise.
Although many skeptics will agree on the benefits of tuition-free higher education, the inevitable question that is raised is “but how will we pay for it?”. This may indeed be the final barrier for a skeptic, and if asked in earnest, the question is fine — it should be answered. Skepticism of new spending, or of a shift in resource allocation, is perfectly warranted.
When the question is asked, though, there is an easy answer, and it is the only sensible one. First, we live in the richest nation in the history of the world, and so there is no doubt that we can easily pay for it. Then, it’s very simple how we will pay for it: the same way we pay for other public goods and services. We know how this works — it’s called federal and state funding.
A small amount contributed through tax dollars, or simply drawn from the massive existing budget of the United States government, will pay for tuition-free public education without much difficulty.
The annual federal budget is $3.8 trillion, or $3,800 billion. The College-For-All Act will have the federal government covering 67 percent of tuition costs, with the states covering the rest. That’s $41 billion per year out of $3,800 billion, or approximately 1% of the federal budget to spend on making higher education tuition-free.
Compare that with the cost of the Iraq War at $2 trillion (or around $142 billion per year), which in hindsight had no real defensive purpose. Or simply compare our request of $41 billion to the annual military budget of $600+ billion.
Yes, it would be nice to spend what amounts to less than 10% of the current military budget on continued education and debt relief. To say it is “impossible,” after reading that factual sentence, would certainly be dishonest.
But wait, there’s more. Consider that we subsidize major corporations to the tune of $110 billion annually — even though they operate and profit just fine without being subsidized. That’s about two and a half times what we’re asking for higher education.
Then, there’s the conservative estimate of $1.4 trillion hidden by major corporations in tax havens, which a slew of economists say have no justification and should be abolished. This costs us roughly $111 billion in lost tax dollars each year. Can we have a part of that for education? We now have major reason to be skeptical of those who still say No.
Finally, we arrive at the ultimate rebuttal to any financial skeptic: consider the Wall Street bailout after the 2008 crash in which Wall Street single-handedly took down the economy, through reckless speculation and fraudulent business practices, but were bailed out by taxpayers at a cost of roughly $17 trillion in long-term spending. Approximately $5 trillion has already been paid out, which brings us to somewhere around $600 billion per year. Exact figures on the bailout are unknown, but this conservative estimate is more than 14 times what the College-For-All Act proposes in federal spending on higher education per year. It seems after all that we can afford things when we want to.
Education is not very costly in comparison to the other ways in which we spend our tax dollars, and it is a better way to spend our tax dollars than building countless bombs and subsidizing fraudulent, economy-crashing business practices. We can afford to pay a comparatively small amount for things that benefit the majority, like education. Indeed, that’s exactly what tax dollars are supposed to be for.
The best part of the College-For-All plan is that most Americans will not have to pay a single dime more in taxes than they already are paying. The proposal clearly states that, considering the American public has already paid massive amounts to subsidize Wall Street and major corporations, it’s time for the wealthy to pay a small fraction back to us in tax dollars — which the rest of us have already spent to bail them out and make their wealth possible in the first place.
Sanders’ bill proposes that tuition-free higher education will be paid for by a tax of less than one percent on Wall Street speculation. Such a proposal is endorsed by over 1,000 economists, and has a precedent in similar taxes in many countries around the world.
Truly we need a revolution in our nation’s priorities. But even if zero funds from the current budget were re-allocated, students would still be able to pursue higher education, and be debt-free in the future, through a small transaction tax on Wall Street. It will easily supply the necessary funds. All we need is for the government, pressured by the people, to “make it so.”
The argument that we cannot pay for it is an excuse, not a practical concern, in the richest country in the history of the world. That is the bottom line, and never forget it.
There is one thing the skeptics are often right about, however — and we advocates sometimes get it wrong, at least in language. “Free” college is not truly “free.” Just like libraries and fire departments are not truly free, and neither are aircraft carriers. So let’s call it what it is — which is good for truth’s sake, and nips the skeptic’s easiest gripe in the bud. Tuition-free higher public education would be a small but wise price to pay, for a better economy, a greater society, and more individual opportunities to learn and grow.