While Sen Sanders pleads for “free” college tuition, he ignores the fundamental problems. It’s not how we pay, it’s what we pay and what we get for our money. It’s not the cost, but the qualifications and actions of our students. It’s not the tuition, it’s the match of a college education to the jobs in the 21st century. It’s not everyone should go to college, it’s rethinking all training and jobs skills.
But you see, those mismatches are exactly the problem with political promises and especially socialist promises. They provide shallow “solutions” for the wrong problems. But they sure sound appealing.
The federal government heavily subsidizes higher education through a complex system of grants and loans. While the programs are great for colleges — they have enabled an astronomical increase in tuition — they contain few measures holding the institutions accountable to their students.
As a result, only 59 percent of students graduate from four-year colleges and universities within six years. Those lucky enough to graduate face another hurdle: 44 percent of recent college graduates occupy jobs which do not require a college degree. Taken together, these numbers suggest that only one-third of college enrollees emerge from the system with both a degree and a relevant job.
Making college free would do nothing to address these problems. In fact, it would worsen them. At community colleges, which President Obama would make free, only 40 percent of students graduate, even when taking into account those that transfer to other institutions.
Bernie Sanders’ proposals look even worse. At four-year colleges with open enrollment, which are most likely to accept the additional students drawn into the system by free tuition, the graduation rate is just 34 percent. More students attending these colleges would push overall graduation rates down. Without measures to ensure that colleges help their students graduate and find good jobs, free tuition would only shuffle more young people into a system that fails two-thirds of them.
Advocates of free college often point to similar systems in European countries such as Denmark and Norway. But these nations have effectively made the college degree into the new high school degree. In Denmark, young people with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree earn just 12 percent more than those with a high school degree alone, compared to 65 percent in the United States. By putting more students through college, European countries have nearly erased its value as an investment.
What to do instead? Policymakers have two problems to solve. First, colleges must be held accountable to student outcomes and bear some responsibility if students do not graduate or find a good job. Second, instead of shifting the burden of high tuition onto the taxpayer, the cost of college itself must come down.