Remember when college was optional? Fifty years ago, if you finished high school and went to work, it was possible to make a living and have a decent life. If you wanted to attend college but couldn’t afford it, grants and scholarships helped with the costs. If you qualified, the federal Pell Grant covered more than 75% of the costs of attending a public university for a year. If you didn’t, working while in college helped make ends meet.
Those days are over. Targeting financial aid to some people has proved ineffective at making college affordable for the millions of Americans who are now required to attend. It’s near impossible to maintain a middle-class life without college, yet the Pell Grant now covers barely one-third of the cost a year at a public university. And most Americans can’t get a Pell Grant because they are “too rich,’ even though they have to shell out at least 25% of their annual income to pay for an education at a public university. Other people can’t get a Pell Grant because they can’t complete the required application. Even a community college is so expensive that after all grants and scholarships, students from low-income families still have to work or borrow to afford it.
This is why Bernie Sanders has a plan that emphasizes the importance of making public higher education affordable to everyone, period. His approach goes ‘big’ because it’s what our economy needs: strong incentives for everyone to work hard, get educated, and commit to a better tomorrow. It focuses on the public sector because government can hold schools accountable for high-quality outcomes, and encourage real competition for private institutions that shortchange students.
Sadly, Hillary Clinton decries this bold effort to make college affordable because she thinks Gov. Scott Walker won’t like it, or one of Trump’s kids might actually benefit. Should the Democrats really support a leader with a defeatist attitude about a critical 21st century problem? Would we have supported a Democrat who opposed making public high schools free?
Ignorance is massively expensive. Bernie Sanders is pursuing a goal we can’t afford to sideline. His plan is to invest in public higher education (in its educators and its students) so that anyone who wants to attend college can afford to complete a degree.
Since higher education brings enormous economic benefits to communities, states, and the entire nation, he’s proposing that the federal government pays two-thirds of the costs and states pay one-third. If Gov. Walker refuses to make college in Wisconsin affordable, then Wisconsin residents will either vote him out or move to Minnesota where college will be free—after all, they will face a nearly $100,000 incentive per degree to do so.
We can’t afford for families to resent each other when it comes to paying for college. We all need education and should all be able to afford it. So it’s fine for Clinton or even Trump’s kids to benefit from tuition-free public higher education, because it means that they will then help fund it. After all, that’s why we also provide them with Social Security, public fire departments, libraries, and even k-12 schools.
Making public colleges and universities tuition-free is not unrealistic. It’s necessary. States like Tennessee and Oregon, and communities like Kalamazoo, Mich., and El Dorado Ark., know this. They are already doing it and reaping big returns. Tuition-free college is catalytic. It brings schools, businesses, and communities together to focus on public education. On the other hand, Clinton’s approach is more of the same—more means-tested aid, more bureaucracy, and yes, more reliance on governors.
We’re living in a new world today, and our kids know it. They want college and we need to be able to pay for it. It’s been more than one hundred years since we made high school tuition-free, and generated a century of incredible technological and economic improvements. The old financial aid system worked for a while, but now it’s broken. We know what to do. It’s time to make public higher education tuition-free.