What would you say to free college tuition? Most students and parents we know would be thrilled at the idea. In fact, that’s why so many students search high and low for college scholarships every year. No one wants to choose between graduating with a mountain of student debt or not graduating at all, but, unfortunately, that’s exactly the choice that many students have to make every single year in this country.

Senator Bernie Sanders has gained a lot of popularity of late with his stance that college tuition is not only entirely too high but that it should not exist at all. According to Sanders, “We live in a highly competitive global economy. If our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world. That will not happen if every year hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.” [1].

Should Wall Street Pay for US Students’ Educations?

President Obama made waves earlier this year with the announcement of his intention to provide two years of community college education to all US citizens, but Sanders wants to take Obama’s proposed plan a step farther. In fact, Senator Bernie Sanders is proposing that we make all public, four-year colleges completely free to all in-state students.

The funding for tuition would no longer come from scholarships, federal loans, and/or private loans. Rather, two thirds of it would come from the federal government while the other third would be supplemented by state governments. This, in turn, would be funded by taxes levied on Wall Street transactions made by speculators, hedge funds, and investment houses [1].

All of this sounds great for students and parents, but is it a good idea? Let’s weigh the pros and cons of Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan.

Pro – Equal Opportunity Education

First of all, many talented young students opt out of in-demand fields because they cannot afford the degree necessary to enter them. Instead of more engineers and scientists, we have more people out of work and working off debts. If college were free for in-state students, there would be a level playing field for all students to get the same education.

Con – Strain on State Finances

This kind of plan would definitely entice a lot of lower-middle class and middle class students to choose public schools over private universities and colleges. The added numbers of students will likely add strain to the schools’ staff and require expansion. Though two thirds of tuition will be covered by the federal government, state governments will still be responsible for a full third of tuition costs. Add this to costs of expansion, increased staff numbers, and other costs associated with more students, and you could have major financial problems for some states.

Pro – A Simpler System

With so many students defaulting on their student loans, the federal government is essentially already “paying” for many people’s educations. A one-payer system with Wall Street doing most of the funding sounds like a great idea that will be simpler and more efficient than the current one.

Con – Germany’s System Isn’t Quite as Great as We Think It Is

Senator Bernie Sanders has based a great deal of his argument for free college tuition on Germany’s free tuition model. There’s a pretty big difference here, though. To keep student populations in check and to keep the system working efficiently, students are tracked from a young age and, based on testing and classroom performance, set in different curricula [2].

Only a small minority are actually put on the college-prep track, which goes a long way toward explaining why we do not see a higher percentage of college graduates in Germany even though they don’t have high tuition standing in their way [2].

Without a similar system, overloading classrooms in US colleges and universities may very well lead to less excellence in our education system. Would greater access be worth degradation in excellence in our public colleges and universities? And would the wealthy still get the most advantages based on the fact that they could still afford to send their children to more exclusive private colleges and universities?

We Need a Solution

While Senator Bernie Sanders’ idea for free college tuition may or may not be a good solution, we can all agree that the system, as it stands, may be broken. Without grants, scholarships, and/or heavy student loans, students don’t stand a chance of getting through college.

Tuition rates have increased by half in the last decade, and student loan allowances aren’t keeping up with increases. Without some form of reform, we can expect fewer and fewer college students to graduate each year. And those who do will be dependent on college scholarships and other interventions to help them get through. Senator Bernie Sanders is right about one thing: something has to change.

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[1] http://www.sanders.senate.gov/newsroom/recent-business/make-college-tuition-free

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/college-doesnt-need-to-be-free/2015/05/21/4453fc94-ff0f-11e4-805c-c3f407e5a9e9_story.html