Education, Politics

The High Cost of Free College for All

During the 2016 Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders advocated a new federal entitlement making U.S. public colleges and universities tuition free. Since then, Democratic Socialists and some mainstream Democrats have begun supporting such a proposal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Bronx, NY candidate running on a socialist platform who became a media star after unseating a senior House Democrat in a primary upset, has made it one of her central campaign issues.  

Sanders argues that countries like Germany, Finland, Norway and Sweden have successfully made college free, but there are some major differences between the education systems of continental Europe and those of the United States that make Sanders’s proposal impractical.

Everyone has access to higher education in the United States

According to data collected by the U.S. Census, 90 percent of adults between ages 25 and 34 have a high school degree or its equivalent, and after high school about two-thirds of adults went on to one of America’s more than 4,500 institutions of higher education

While many people’s archetypal idea of “college” is a selective private university or liberal arts college or a flagship public research university, academically selective institutions only serve a small segment of the population. Only about ten percent of the total number of US colleges and universities are ranked on the US News and World Report lists of “Best National Universities” and “Best Liberal Arts Colleges.” The majority of institutions, including about 1,700 two-year colleges, are much less academically selective or have open enrollment and accept anyone with a high school diploma.

Americans believe everyone should go to college, and public policy supports that belief with heavy subsidies, in the form of grants for low-income students and military veterans and government-guaranteed subsidized loans for everyone else.

America’s 65 percent college matriculation rate is high by global standards, even when compared to countries where tuition is free. But universal access isn’t entirely beneficial. The percentage of U.S. students who go to college substantially exceeds the percentage of U.S. students whose academic records suggest that they are capable of doing college-level work. The 35th percentile composite score on the SAT, based on a nationally-representative sample, is a 930. The College Board, which administers the SAT places its college-readiness benchmark at a 480 verbal and a 530 math, or a 1010 composite score, which places a tester at the median of the sample. Meeting that benchmark means that the student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or better in first-year college reading and math classes.   

This measure roughly predicts student outcomes; 46 percent of 25 to 34-year-old Americans have at least a 2-year degree, and 36.5 percent earned a four-year degree. However, about 19 percent of Americans enrolled in college but never earned a credential of any type—that’s nearly a third of all students.

As an institution’s admissions selectivity drops, so does its graduation rate. Overall, 60 percent of students who matriculate at a 4-year college as freshmen graduate within six years, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics. At schools that accept fewer than 25 percent of applicants, 88 percent of students graduate, and at schools that accept fewer than half of applicants, 70 percent graduate. However, at schools that take 90 percent of applicants, fewer than half graduate, and at open enrollment schools, only a third of freshmen complete their degrees. At community colleges, only 39 percent of all students earn a two-year degree within six years. Full-time community-college students have better odds; 55 percent of them graduate. But only about a quarter of part-time and mixed-enrollment students complete their degrees.

Colleges with low graduation rates criticize the methods by which these statistics are measured, because part-time students often take longer than six years to graduate, and the set of students who matriculate at an institution and do not graduate from it includes both students who drop out and students who transfer to other schools, some of whom earn degrees elsewhere. Swayed by these arguments, a federal committee convened to study low college graduation rates resulted in the Education Department changing the way the government measures graduation rates in 2017 so that the numbers look better. But no amount of finessing the data can change the fact that 19 percent of all 25-34 year olds went to college and didn’t earn a degree.

Like less-selective colleges, the US military requires a high school diploma or its equivalent to enlist, but it also makes prospective soldiers take a test called the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), and, while each branch has a slightly different cutoff, about a third of enlistees are rejected due to low test scores. By comparison, any US citizen with a high school diploma or its equivalent can currently qualify for student loans, without regard for other factors, such as the student’s credit history or test scores. The hitch is that student loan debt can carry high-interest rates, and, unlike other debts, it cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings.

In other words, college is so accessible in the United States that it’s easier to get student loans and enroll in college than it is to enlist in the armed forces.

The cost of dropping out

While much media coverage of high college costs focuses on the debt loads taken on by students at selective and elite schools, those students are actually managing their debts well. For example, New York University is one of the most expensive private schools in the country, and students there borrow significantly more than average. After four years, an average NYU graduate has about $29,000 in student loans.

But despite that burden, three years after leaving school, only two percent of borrowers at NYU had defaulted on their student loans, compared to a nationwide average of 7.2 percent. That’s because over 85 percent of students who enroll at NYU graduate, and because NYU graduates are competitive for high-paying jobs. 

Other selective schools have similarly low student loan default rates, because, despite the high cost of attending these schools, the wage premium that comes with a respected credential more than covers the loan burden. But, for those who don’t graduate, there’s no wage premium. While less-selective public four-year schools and two-year community colleges typically cost a lot less than elite universities, it’s easier for elite graduates to manage large debts than it is for borrowers who don’t earn a credential to manage small ones.

Education Sector, a non-profit behavioral and social science organization, found in a 2013 survey that 514 US colleges and universities had higher percentages of students who defaulted on student loans than graduated. A disproportionate number of these institutions were for-profit institutions, but 314 were public two-year colleges. That means that one in five community colleges has more students who default on student loans than graduate.

Every academic measure shows that a large percentage of American high school graduates lack the reading, writing and math skills to pass introductory college courses, and despite reliable data warning that these students are unlikely to succeed in college, hundreds of thousands of them are permitted to enroll in college each year, only for them to inevitably to fail out. The practice of admitting students who are not capable of doing college-level work causes a great deal of misery and an enormous waste of time, public resources and the students’ money.

The Sanders proposal doesn’t solve the problems with US education

Between 1980 and 2015, the number of degree granting institutions in the United States rose by nearly half, from 3,231 to 4,627, even though the number of college-age students hasn’t risen by anything like that proportion; the Millennial generation is about the same size as the Baby Boomer generation, and about 20 percent larger than Generation X.

Some of the growth in higher education is the result of an increasingly sophisticated economy requiring a more educated workforce; people who once would have gone from high school into skilled jobs that did not require degrees now need to go to college. Some of the growth in higher education is the result of better access to college for women and minorities

But a lot of colleges that were not around a few decades ago exist only because of federal subsidies, and enroll anyone eligible for federal aid, regardless of their academic qualifications. This is the business model of the for-profit sector, but many public two-year and four-year colleges serve similar students. Many of these students are academically weak, and few of them complete their degrees. But access to government aid isn’t contingent on academic success, and schools get to cash the checks regardless of whether or not the students graduate.

Bernie Sanders

The only part of this system Sanders seems to be concerned with is the fact that students come out of it saddled with debt. Making tuition free will completely socialize the cost and risk of student failure at hundreds of schools that enroll students who are more likely to drop out than to ever graduate, at a cost of $75 billion per year. Sanders promises to fully fund this program by taxing “Wall Street speculators,” but realistically, taxpayers will bear the cost of this program, either directly through increased federal taxes, or by losing out on other potentially beneficial uses of these federal funds.

Students who earn degrees, especially those who graduate from four-year institutions and go on to earn above-average incomes, will likely wind up paying more in increased taxes to fund these programs than they would have saved on tuition, and people who have already graduated will have to fund this even though they already paid their own tuition or may still be paying off loans.

Since the Sanders proposal would only cover students attending public colleges, students who attend private schools wouldn’t benefit from this entitlement, but would still be on the hook for funding it. The proposal doesn’t explain how it would handle benefits for students who want to attend public colleges outside their home state, but there are about 17 million college students in the United States, so Sanders’s $75 billion allots about $4,400 to each student, which doesn’t pay the bills even for in-state students at many public flagships. The University of Michigan, for example, costs over $15,000 per year for Michigan residents, and about $50,000 for out-of-state students. It’s not clear if or how Bernie plans to make schools like that tuition-free. 

Students who drop out, and who are currently at very high risk to default on student loans, will be better off under a program that lets them leave college for free. But they’ll still be worse off than they would have been if they never went to college in the first place, because they will still waste their time struggling in courses that they cannot pass, and will still have poor employment prospects after they drop out. Instead of further subsidizing the programs that are currently failing these students, it would make more sense to try to develop some sort of new postsecondary job-training program that might have better results for students who are unlikely to complete a college degree.

The only clear beneficiaries of the Sanders proposal are minimally-selective and open-enrollment colleges, which would not exist but for the enormous subsidies that already support thousands of such questionable institutions. These schools will get huge amounts of new government money while not being required to yield results for their students or the taxpayers. 

Free tuition would probably encourage more students to go to college; the United States would probably have the highest college enrollment among 18-24 year-olds in the world. But in a country where two-thirds of the population is already going to college, there aren’t many promising students left to find, so growth in enrollment spurred by Sanders’s tuition-free college would mostly come from more students signing up to attend the least selective institutions. These institutions would expand to accommodate these new students and collect these new subsidies. We would see more minimally-selective public colleges opening up across the country.

It’s not clear that this would be beneficial. Based on testing data, increasing the percentage of 18-24 year olds who sign up for college from 65 percent of the population to 80 percent probably won’t do much to increase the percentage of 25-34 year olds with degrees, because America’s best students are already going to college, and few students in the bottom third of academic performers are capable of passing even introductory college classes.

Education subsidies need greater accountability

Sanders touts Germany as an example of a country that makes higher education free. But while Germany’s universities are fully funded by the state, they aren’t universally accessible. Germany practices extensive academic tracking that funnels nearly half of students into vocational programs. Only about 40 percent of German secondary-school students attend a university preparatory program, or Gymnasium, for secondary school, and these students must pass a difficult, high-stakes exam called the Abitur in order to qualify to attend a university. About 300,000 students pass the Abitur each year, and another 200,000 students qualify to attend technical colleges.

While short-term tertiary education — analogous to American two-year colleges — has been expanding in Germany, and the percentage of secondary school graduates entering some kind of tertiary education has risen from about a third in 2000 to more than half in 2016, the percentage of American high school graduates who go to college is still much higher than the percentage of Germans, even though Americans have to pay their own way. 

Germany is able to make college free for its most promising students because it doesn’t pour massive amounts of taxpayer money into of colleges with very low admissions standards that recruit students who are unlikely to graduate. If the US wants to make college tuition-free, it should first do a better job of reducing waste and holding institutions and students accountable for outcomes.

The government has shown itself to be capable of doing this; the Obama administration cracked down hard on for-profit colleges, punishing them for low graduation rates and poor job placements. Between 2008 and 2016, student enrollment in for-profit schools shrank from 2.4 million to 1.6 million and Corinthian Colleges and ITT Technical Institutes — two large for-profit chains — collapsed after Obama cut off the spigot of federal money to their low-performing programs. 

Although President Trump, who put his own name on a for-profit real-estate course called Trump University, has eased restrictions on for-profit colleges, Obama’s crackdown was an unalloyed good. For-profit schools get as much as 90 percent of their revenue from federal programs and, although they enrolled only about 11 percent of American students at their peak, they were responsible for more than 40 percent of student loan defaults. But, while Obama praised public community colleges as a less-expensive alternative to for-profit colleges, and sought to implement a national program to make community college free, less-selective and open-enrollment public two-year and four-year schools have flourished under the same set of subsidies that spawned the for-profits, recruit students with similar academic profiles, and produce student outcomes that aren’t much different. 

The program Sanders proposes is massive; if implemented, it will increase federal education spending by 75 percent. The cost of this program is more than double what the U.S. government currently spends on science, and one-sixth the size of US defense spending. Before we funnel all this money into public colleges, we should take a close look at the value we can expect to get in return. 

If we want to mimic the German education model, perhaps we should make college harder to get into before we make it free, so that we can ensure that most students who enroll can actually graduate. And maybe, like the Germans we should track more of our striving but below-average academic performers into vocational programs that will help them get better jobs instead of sending them to colleges where we know most of them will flunk.


Daniel Friedman is the Edgar Award-nominated author of Don’t Ever Get OldDon’t Ever Look Back and Riot Most Uncouth. Follow him on Twitter@DanFriedman81 


  1. Here’s another uncomfortable truth: a large driver of education costs is housing. Housing is the reason Swedish university students often graduate with large debts, even though the tuition is free for domestic students. When you consider that the US students from the lowest income households are already generally eligible for grants that cover most or all of tuition costs at public universities, it’s hard to see this idea as anything other than a massive transfer of wealth to the middle class that won’t fix the problem it’s trying to solve.

    • Softclocks says

      This goes for Norwegian and Danish students as well.

      I got out with about 40k in debt after 7 years or so. Not bad, but entirely due to expensive housing.

  2. Jeremy says

    My shorter explanation is that the fundamental problem is that students are getting a bad deal (because they’re making bad decisions). Not only by dropping out but also by going to cost inefficient schools and by getting useless degrees.

    Making someone else pay for it won’t fix that problem.

    I’m not a fan of free education with selective schooling either because that would (mostly) be a wealth transfer from the average Joe to the well-off.

  3. ga gamba says

    Hold on. I keep hearing almost every job is going to be replaced by robots so the unemployable need UBI to write their poems.

    Anyway, what about uni education and UBI for all your new friends and neighbours who will be entering the US once Ms Ocasio Cortez and other dreamers cancel the borders?

    • DiamondLil says

      Werner’s rude and silly reply aside, I seem to remember Bernie Sanders as being on the record as opposing open borders, precisely because it would benefit the employer class by suppressing wages. Have any serious proponents of UBI and free college for all addressed the question of citizenship and such benefits? That’s not snark on my part, but a serious question for anyone here who has seen that addressed.

      • ga gamba says

        UBI is now part of California’s Democratic Party platform, and given the influence of this state and several of its leaders such as Harris, Feinstein, Pelosi, and Waters, two of whom are considered to be top contenders for the presidential nomination in 2020, would that meet your definition of “serious’? As for open borders, what is the call for abolishing ICE and blanket amnesty of illegal aliens if not means to that end? And let’s not forget Hillary Clinton also called for this when, in a paid speech in 2013, she talked about her dream of open borders. Of course maybe she tailored her remarks to those writing her $250,000 cheques. Re financial aid given to illegals, the states of Connecticut and New Jersey voted to extended financial aid to illegals, and gubernatorial candidates such as Ben Jealous want Maryland to cover the costs of illegal aliens to attend community college. Do these qualify as “serious”?

        Now, let’s analyse your comment. “Werner”, I presume, alludes to Nazis. How original! I mentioned “Ocasio Cortez and other dreamers” and you replied “Sanders”. Jeez, how did that happen? Eyeballs need cleaning? You write my comment is both “silly and rude”, yet you state that you haven’t seen this issue “addressed”. How could you reach this conclusion without also presuming you’re well informed? Which you are not, as you have conceded. You’re bouncing all over the place. Of course you could have looked it up, yet you chose not to, preferring to write smears. Not only are you ignorant, you’re also lazy and entitled by asking others to do your work for you.

        Ignorant, lazy, and entitled is no way to go through life. No surprise the Democratic Party and progressivism appeals to you.

        • ga gamba says

          @DiamondLil, disregard the mention of Werner. It appears you were speaking about (or to) another person in your reply to me, which I saw after replying to your comment.

          • DiamondLil says

            Good heavens, GG! I was responding to someone who had deployed a gratuitous and nonsensical insult your way, and you respond by insulting me? My question was a serious one (hence the “that’s not snark on my part” aside). I have read many columns advocating both free college from people who also seem to support open borders (even from those serious advocates you list, all of whom I am very familiar with), but have never seen them respond to the inherent contradictions they raise. I was seriously asking if anyone had and what those arguments might be. I think of Quillette as a place where links and references can be shared among people of good will. I am most assuredly neither ignorant, lazy, nor entitled, nor am I a democrat or self-described progressive. I have often read you comments with interest and respect, GG, but that will be harder to do now. Perhaps before you unleash a volley of invective against a fellow commentor, you should take a beat and reread it without automatically assume the very worst. One might describe that as “cleaning your eyeballs.”

  4. Werner says

    The duckspeak of the one dimensional mind of ga gamba! Quack Quack!

    • DiamondLil says

      Very persuasive, Werner. You’ve completely changed my mind on the topic. Thanks.

  5. E. Olson says

    The free education proposals are all driven by the fallacy that the only thing keeping the gang-banger ghetto kid, or the fruit-picker recent arrival from south of the border, or coal-miner’s daughter in White Trash W.Virginia from a $200,000 Wall Street/Silicon Valley salary is an Ivy League education. Leftist policy makers and academics see the statistics that show college graduates earning several hundred thousand dollars in additional career earnings than non-graduates, and hence see the the solution to poverty as giving everyone a college degree. As the author correctly points out, however, the US already sends too many young adults to college based on the evidence of their poor test scores and high drop-out rates. The political problem not mentioned by the author is that a disproportionate share of the “not college material” students are “victim” classes – i.e. black and Hispanics. There are also lots of underclass whites and Asians who are mostly not college material, but the political class generally doesn’t care about them because they are “privileged”, and hence they get no affirmative action help in college admissions. The most important real problem with all of these not college material students is their low IQ, as the US black and Hispanic median IQ is generally estimated at mid-80s to low 90s, while college level work is generally thought to require 105+ IQ. Low IQ also explains much of the US “failing” K-12 school problem, as most failing schools are forced to deal with low IQ demographics, which are often accompanied by poor home environments (i.e. lower IQ single mom households), and poor cultural support for education (i.e. doing well at school is “acting white”). These failing demographics are also problems that the “free” university Scandinavia, Germany, etc. have historically not had to deal with, but with their recent flood of immigrants from failing parts of the world will now also be paying for. Instead of college for everyone, the focus of public policy and the education establishment needs to be on finding and supporting the type of education that can produce the maximum number of productive and well-adjusted citizens, which will mean facing the reality that outcomes in terms of educational approaches, degrees, and salaries will not be equal across all demographics.

  6. Jack B Nimble says

    ‘………….Germany practices extensive academic tracking that funnels nearly half of students into vocational programs…..’

    Ummmmm…. in some states including my own, community colleges offer technical and vocational training. I found these vocational programs at my local CC: Air Conditioning and Refrigeration, Culinary Arts and Occupations, Drafting and Design Technology, Industrial Maintenance Technology, Machine Tool Technology and Welding. Why not start by making these courses free, as Pres. Obama proposed?

    Also, ‘…….The program Sanders proposes is massive; if implemented, it will increase federal education spending by 75 percent. The cost of this program is more than double what the U.S. government currently spends on science, and one-sixth the size of US defense spending. Before we funnel all this money into public colleges, we should take a close look at the value we can expect to get in return….’

    Discussion of Sanders’ program is incomplete without acknowledging that some states currently invest state tax dollars in tuition subsidies. Other states like Rhode Island and New York are thinking of getting on that bandwagon. These subsidies would presumably decrease or vanish under his program, resulting in a net tax and expenditure reduction at the state level. Also, means-testing could be adjusted to reduce the total cost. See, for example:

    • DiamondLil says

      I am long past college age, but I looked into community college programs in my 50’s after a job layoff. What I found (while Corinthian and ITT were still up and running) was that the community colleges offered practical, vocational-type courses at a much lower cost than the for profits did, but the classes were crowded with long wait lists and inconvenient hours. I was surprised at how hard it would be to find such courses if you also needed to work full time. Community colleges that partnered with industry to offer more slots to more students could provide vocational training for people who don’t belong in the liberal arts classroom.

  7. Falerea says

    In Spain fees are partially subsidied depending on the social class of the parents and the academic success of the student every year. It is not completely free. It especially works for talented students from low-income families.

  8. The British model is another interesting alternative. Students effectively take out a government backed loan. It is oddly called a “tuition fee” so as to force universities to become more market-oriented, but its actually a “contribution” or graduate tax (it is paid back as money to be contributed, with interest, after earning a certain amount, otherwise they don’t pay). Current rate is about £9250 per year tuition for most programmes and most institutions (medicine and some other subjects in the national interest are subsidized a little more). In England, these “fees” have significantly increased participation by candidates from disadvantaged backgrounds (cf. Scotland which has a different set up) and so increased some components of social mobility.

    However, one problem is that previously highly selective institutions (e.g., the research intensive group of universities called the “Russell Group”) can now recruit more or less as many students as they want and so reduce the entry requirements. So the flip-side of the otherwise progressive policy is that we have more students (with poorer entry grades) who are less capable of doing college-level work at some of the top universities in the country, and we have the associated problem of grade inflation.

    Germany seems to have it about right.

  9. The vast majority of four-year colleges in the US are basically non-selective in their admissions, and churn out whole armies of dim-witted graduates with degrees in useless fields. Pick up a course catalog from one of these schools, and look at what they’re offering, and then ask yourself: Why should public policy encourage this misallocation of public and private resources? It’s bad enough as it stands now, but why would we want to further encourage even more dull kids to spend five or six years of their life (apparently that’s how long it takes these days) getting a degree that they’re likely never going to use, and arriving saddled with loan debt at the American labor market in their near-mid-twenties with almost nothing to offer the economy?

    On the other hand, every state is filled with community colleges that offer quick and relatively-inexpensive two-year degrees and one-year certificate programs. Now, pick up a course catalog from one of these institutions, and observe the wide range of useful (and often desperately needed) subjects and fields of study they offer — for example, nursing, refrigeration mechanics, electrical systems, computer processing, laboratory technology, bookkeeping and accounting, to name just a few.

    If it ever comes down to whether the US government is going to be subsidizing the education of some entitled whiny upper-middle class student seeking a bachelors degree in gender studies (or some other slightly less useless liberal art) or a working-class kid who wants to get a one-year certificate in automotive technology, I know where I’m going to want my tax dollars to go.

  10. Stephane Beau says

    Hello from France.

    Here in France, the education system is totally free. Access to the university costs 400 €/year and if you can not it is free. The student has access to accommodation at very low prices (less than 100 €/month). Our universities are accessible to foreign students. If you want, you can accumulate a small job with your studies, even for foreigners. Medical studies are paid in the third year. Our diplomas are valid worldwide and for certain recognized as the best in the world. I invite the American students to come and see our universities, this will prevent them from getting into debt for life.

    • Bon jour Stephane! Totally free?! That’s amazing! So, just to be clear, the faculty & staff of French educational institutions eschew payment for their services out of an altruistic impulse? Is housing for the faculty & staff free as well? And there are no property taxes levied against the University property? And the power & water services for University buildings are free also? That’s so wonderful that publishers produce their textbooks and materials for free! And that there’s no charge for delivering those materials to the students! Vive le France!

  11. Unscrupulous Yeezy says

    David Graeber has just published a book called “Bullshit Jobs”:

    Based on an article that he wrote a few years ago:

    I disagree with a lot of what Graeber writes generally–he’s a pretty outspoken anarchist, leftist, and cynic–but I think he has hit on something important.

    Broadly, he explores the idea that a lot of jobs–particularly the “requires a college degree” middle and upper-middle class jobs–are of little real use to the productivity and well being of the society. This is not true of the dentist, the teacher giving basic reading instruction, or the building contractor. But the college diversity dean, the patent navigation attorney, the medical insurance claims manager? They exist solely because we have manufactured evermore bureaucracy that makes paperwork for them to understand and crush through, and that in turn creates strata of other workers who support these elite make-work people (the professional dog walker, the personal shopper, the personal trainer, et al.) We have created staggeringly complicated systems that only the more intelligent can navigate.

    Graeber also points out that those who USED to be more clearly productive–doctors, police officers, university professors, engineers, et al.–are reporting that their work is more and more taken up with bureaucracy and less and less with direct productivity and service.

    This raises the specter that much “work” has little to do with directed productivity now; and that education is more and more a hoop series to sort people and keep our society structured, like Mandarin China, rather than training to communicate and understand others in order to get things done.

    People who actually DO things–collect trash, prepare meals, clean houses, run electrical wiring, bolt together cars–are finding their wages and quality of life and security vanishing, gigged into subsistence. An immigrant nanny does the critical work of keeping the children alive for minimum wage while mom puts on a power suit (cleaned and delivered to her home by other immigrant cleaners and van drivers) and moves papers from one side of a desk to another for $150,000 a year. Mom gets lots of status and a stable place in society but feels like she’s living in a pretend world, that nobody really needs her where she spends most of her time, that her job could vanish and nothing would change.

    Not good for mom’s mental health. She’s on Zoloft and having an affair with one of the vacuous assholes at work in order to feel alive. She watches a lot of “reality TV” and also a lot of time on Facebook uploading pictures of her cool meals and weekend road trips proving to everyone she has a fun and interesting life. She almost believes it herself.

    It seems to be inescapable that people like to serve their families and communities directly in order to feel fulfilled and to belong. When their work doesn’t seem to serve anyone, it’s deadening to the body and soul.

    What we may have done is replace our intuitive organizational structures in our society–the efficient hierarchies we naturally fall into and follow as human creatures without thought or effort–with explicit, time consuming, bureaucratic, structures that make us prove we deserve a place in our own goddamn tribe.

    Now Crazy Bernie wants to solve the problem by putting more people into the educational bureaucracy.

    Yeah. That’ll do the trick.

  12. Stephane Beau says

    Very important

    There is an important point that is normal for a Frenchman, all medical expenses are taken care of, by our health system. For a foreign student it costs a little less than €300 a year.

  13. Farris says

    When my daughter was applying to college, I perused one of the course catalogs. This four year university offered a major in puppetry. One hundred thousand dollars in debt for a major in puppetry! Who’s the real dummy here?

    • Daniel says

      It’s a niche, but can be a good one. I had a buddy in college who was a ventriloquist, and he did quite well on only a few gigs a month. But I get your point: puppetry, no matter how charming — or lucrative — is best learned in a forum other than a 4-year university.

    • Daniel says

      Christopher Watson,

      I also would like to hear what economists think of that idea, because I like it, but am no expert. I think if colleges are issuing the loans, AND if students were allowed to declare bankruptcy, they’d be a heck of a lot more selective, and do a heck of a lot better job preparing students.
      I think this would immediately kneecap the corrupt humanities departments, and would make the valid, as-yet-uncorrupted departments focus on what’s important.

  14. tarstarkas says

    Sanders’ proposal is basically a ‘more jobs for administrators act’, paid for with your tax dollars. Teaching staff for the past couple decades has not increased for all practical purposes whereas admit personnel have increased dramatically.

    • OleK says

      Exactly. In all of these proposals, there is way too little focus on the causes of why our colleges “cost” so much. They shouldn’t. Their mission has been corrupted. Europe doesn’t have the “college experience” problem that we do – it doesn’t need to be some enclosed alternative community thing w/ a bloated administration and other non-academic experiences. The article failing to address this is a disappointment.

  15. Circuses and Bread says

    I find it interesting that the comments on this article focus on the utility of what sort of university subsidization scheme should or should or should not exist, rather than the obvious motives underlying it.

    This is a way of paying off and perhaps enlarging a loyal political faction, in this case the university-political complex, through the use of taxpayer dollars. In the end whether it serves it’s stated objective or not will be irrelevant.

    • Daniel says

      Good point. It’s possible that wasn’t the underlying goal originally, but it’s definitely metastasized into that. It’s also what is the hulking force preventing reform.

    • peanut gallery. says

      Education and healthcare are the Bread and Circuses of our time.

  16. Free college is a great campaign slogan.

    Like single payer health care, it is destined to be on the platform so long as the Democrats are in a political minority.

    Bread and circuses–expand the EIT credit and then raise interest rates on student loans to make up for the high default rate–that’s the best the Democrats can do, if they do anything.

    • peanut gallery says

      It’s a great way to keep people hooked into the matrix. We’re just batteries. Pay that government debt and those taxes and love it! Ask for more! Demand your children hook up too! Grandchildren?! No one has those anymore. No family either, only the STATE. It loves you more than anyone.

  17. “Germany is able to make college free for its most promising students because it doesn’t pour massive amounts of taxpayer money into of colleges with very low admissions standards that recruit students who are unlikely to graduate. If the US wants to make college tuition-free, it should first do a better job of reducing waste and holding institutions and students accountable for outcomes.”

    Damn straight. I have nothing critical to add here, so I’ll just say I thought this was a great article. 100% on point.

  18. It’s weird, but apparently free markets would work if given a chance, as today schools create scarcity with respect to tenure, a preference for research over teaching, for professors teaching to their research rather than foundational materials more relevant to students (sure, PhD candidates should study those specialties).
    What’s weird is that it’s the students who drop out that should be required to pay back their wasted “free tuition” because they consumed the limited shared resource and then didn’t gain the benefits; but clearly they are the least able to repay.

  19. Miles S. says

    Please be exact in your language. The author in numerous places quotes statistics incorrectly

    “However, about 19 percent of Americans enrolled in college but never earned a credential of any type—that’s nearly a third of all students.” No that is nearly 1/5, maybe even a stretch to 1/4 if the error bounds of the quoted data are great enough, but its no where near 33% of the total data set.

  20. Peter from Oz says

    The difference seems to be thatcollege in the US seems to be an extension of High School, wheras in other countries it is actual tertiary education.

  21. Felix says

    Comment from Germany:

    What works so well here is not only that college/university acces is rectricted, but also that the quality of vocational training is so high. Far from being a last resort for those who “didn’t make it”, a vocational diploma is often an entry ticket into highly-paying industries. While on average those with university degrees do earn somewhat more than those who have passed vocational training, in a large number of fields one actually finds the reverse to be true as the average is skewered due to the high wages within a few select fields such as finance. Of course this system only works so well because of the high standards of craftmanship traditionally applied in Germany. Lest this sounds overtly patriotic: Swityerland has a very similar system and is even better at it.

    • peanut gallery says

      Hey, it’s ok to be patriotic within reason. Just don’t start casting lusty glances at Poland or anything…

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