An Alternative to Free Tuition

Democratic presidential candidate and junior Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a popular candidate among students, has pushed for universal free tuition at the nation’s public colleges and universities.

We applaud Sanders for bringing the issue of escalating tuition costs to the forefront of the political agenda, which other candidates from both parties have failed to do. We support his pledge to lower interest rates on college loans and to allow students currently in debt to refinance their loans at lower rates. But when it comes to free public college tuition for all income levels, we ask students (and voters) to look past the sweeping rhetoric and question the unintended consequences of such an action before “feeling the Bern.”

First and foremost, this proposal would subsidize tuition for upper-class students, for whom college is relatively affordable, while having little effect on those who already receive need-based aid. There is a reason for selective pricing at American universities and for the “expected family contribution” component of financial aid applications. Wealthier students cover the costs of the lower income students. Families who can afford to pay for college ought to.

Sanders’ plan also doesn’t focus on some of the most burdensome collegiate costs: room, board, textbooks, food and other necessities. Why would we give wealthier families a break while ignoring the basic yet unattainable needs of others?

Instead, the government should increase the volume of state and federal grants for lower- and middle-income students instead of buttressing those who never need to worry about making ends meet.

On top of that, universities have plenty of areas to cut costs and increase their own need-based aid offerings. The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at colleges and universities in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past 25 years, according to an analysis of federal figures conducted by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the nonprofit American Institutes for Research. (Emory, though a private institution to which Sanders’ policy wouldn’t apply, has seen a 180 percent increase in administrative employees and a 135 percent increase in professional staff but only a 129 percent increase in enrollment, according to the analysis).

In addition, free tuition at public schools would likely increase the volume of applications to those schools. This would be, for the most part, a positive effect. As economics students can tell you, the Law of Demand states that as the price of the good decreases, the quantity demanded increases. In this case, a higher influx of applications to free public institutions would make those institutions more competitive, as they could only afford to accept a set number of students with free tuition.

But what would this mean for private colleges? Like private high schools or college preparatory schools, they would likely become enclaves for those who can afford to attend. Students complain today about the prevalence of obvious wealth on our campus. Would a large portion of Emory’s economically, socially, ethnically and racially diverse character be drawn away by the lesser financial hardships of free tuition? Who would still pay the $45,700 (not including housing, fees, textbooks and food) it costs to attend our university? How would this new average (skewed wealthy) “expected family contribution” affect tuition rates?

These are the questions that remain to be seen and we hope to have answered during the ongoing national discussions about college tuition.

On top of providing additional grants for students who need them, we propose that federal and state governments use measures of academic performance, such as GPA, to ensure that students take full advantage of need-based aid. While many regard a bachelor’s degree as the modern iteration of a high school diploma, it should remain as challenging and achievement-oriented as it is now — at any price. So let’s bring the price down for those who could use the financial help. Education is not a right, but an obstacle in the pursuit of a higher quality of life. Money should not be an obstacle.

The above staff editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel‘s editorial board. 

Update (1/28 at 11:02 a.m.): Bernie Sanders’ position as a junior senator from Vermont was corrected. It previously referred to him as the former Vermont Senator.

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