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Published on April 4th, 2016 | by Cliff Kincaid

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Bernie Sanders and the High Cost of “Free” College

Is it really necessary that everyone goes to college? Presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders certainly thinks so. On his campaign website, Senator Bernie Sanders states that we should “Make tuition free at public colleges and universities.” 1

The senator’s plan fails in many respects. First, the assumption that all college education is expensive and likely to lead to debt is false. There are many online universities that are accredited and extremely affordable. Secondly, Sanders fails to recognize the fact that college costs have ballooned over the years. By doing nothing to address the underlying cost increases of education, the American taxpayer could be looking at a new Medicare, with no horizon in sight for the ever-increasing costs of the program.

More students would be funneled into an expensive and inefficient system that is largely failing today’s graduates.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, he fails to recognize that college is not a panacea for the anemic jobs market. If current college graduates cannot find jobs, then putting more people through college will do nothing to solve the issue. Rather, alternative programs like IT certification and trade jobs provide an excellent salary and are not necessarily achieved by going to a traditional college.

Sanders’ plan refuses to acknowledge the current reality of education, and seeks to implement old ideas in a new and rapidly changing economy.

The Accredited Online University

In the discourse about the high cost of education and student loan debt, it is sometimes forgotten that there are many low-cost options available to students right now. Senator Sanders’s plan is predicated on the fact that debt is the only choice for low and middle class Americans who want to go to college. This assumption may be true if one looks at just the traditional brick-and-mortar institutions.

However, in recent years there has been a proliferation of low and reasonable cost options for schooling, especially online. Lest there be any confusion, these are not online diploma mills. Rather, many of these are regionally-accredited, respectable institutions that offer bachelor’s degrees, master’s and even doctoral degrees for very reasonable costs.

An excellent example of an affordable, accredited university is that of Western Governor’s University. As the name implies, Western Governors University was founded by 19 governors of western states in 1995 to offer affordable tuition by taking advantage of online learning technologies. 2

Forget a bachelor’s in basket weaving; this university offers coursework in highly marketable areas like information technology, nursing, education, and business. Coursework for many of these programs can be completed entirely online. The programs with required field experiences can be conveniently completed in or near one’s own hometown. 3

What is the cost for such a university? It costs approximately $3300 per six month term, including all fees and study materials. Perhaps even better than that, students can graduate as fast as they are able, with the ability to progress as rapidly through their course of study as their own schedule allows (wgu.edu). This ability to work at one’s own pace and graduate early encourages students to finish quickly and save money while doing so. 4
Contrast this with a $20,000+ a year state school. One term that a visitor might hear when visiting these schools is the word “super senior.” These are individuals who are in their fifth, sixth, or even beyond years of university. While they struggle to graduate due to failing grades, changed majors, a lack of support from their university, or other reasons, they are not only racking up debt but also delaying the start of their careers.

A Failed System

Why should the American taxpayer and government continue to subsidize a failing university system? The costs of textbook, tuition, and fees have all increased many multiples against inflation. Textbooks prices alone have increased over 1000% since 1977. 5 Many college professors now demand that their students buy the book that they wrote. Not only this, but a new edition is released almost yearly. Even if a student wanted to get by using last year’s edition, new textbooks often have an “online key” that can only be used once, making the purchase of a new textbook essential in order to do the mandatory homework that can only be accessed online using this key.

While state schools are largely sticking with these exorbitant textbook requirements, other new and innovative online schools like the online American College of Education (ACE) require no textbook. Rather, they assign readings and coursework using academic journal articles. The advantages of such an approach are two-fold for the student: they eliminate expensive textbooks and provide information that is much more up-to-date than a textbook can provide. Not only are expensive textbooks a thing of the past at ACE but so is expensive tuition- ACE offers numerous master’s degrees in education for around $7000. 6

By making tuition free as Senator Sanders suggests, we are doing nothing to address the failed underlying system of the modern brick-and-mortar university. Instead, these wasteful practices continue and grow, perhaps exponentially so if more students inundate the system due to the “free” tuition.

Unmarketable Skills

Perhaps the most obvious problem with the good senator’s plan is that many universities are failing to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs. Last year, 260,000 bachelor’s degree holders were making the federal minimum wage. Add in the 200,000 associate degree holders making the minimum wage, and we’re left with just short of half a million college degree holders getting a very poor return on their college investment, which includes not only tuition dollars but also two to four years of their time and associated lost wages. 7

There are numerous jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts will enjoy double digit growth in the coming years. One job in particular, that of computer support specialist, does not require a 4 year degree at a state school or even a 2 year degree. It has a median salary of $50,380 per year. 8 Udacity offers a program in web development with affordable tuition of $199-$299 a month. Graduates can obtain a “nanodegree” in 6-12 months, and much success has been reported by recent graduates in finding work. The program is co-created by tech giant Google. 9

However, such a program is neither encouraged nor supported by Senator Sanders’ plan. Rather, one could argue it is actually discouraged. Why would a student pay $299 a month when they can go to one of Sanders’ colleges for free? This is one of the fundamental problems with the Sanders plan. Rather than allowing the free market to offer new and better choices to students, Sanders insists on thrusting the federal government into the process. This will most certainly result in deleterious results not only for learners but for those innovative companies that are offering alternatives.

Just as the government’s offering of student loans has encouraged more disastrous student debt and allowed universities to raise their costs, this new Sanders plan would discourage students from innovative and results-driven non-traditional learning. More students would be funneled into an expensive and inefficient system that is largely failing today’s graduates.  

End Notes


1. https://berniesanders.com/issues/
2. http://www.wgu.edu/about_WGU/WGU_story
3. http://www.wgu.edu/degrees_and_programs
4. http://www.wgu.edu/tuition_financial_aid/overview
5. http://www.nbcnews.com/feature/freshman-year/college-textbook-prices-have-risen-812-percent-1978-n399926
6. https://www.ace.edu/tuition/tuition-by-program
7. https://nextcity.org/daily/entry/why-are-so-many-college-graduates-working-minimum-wage-jobs
8. http://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/computer-support-specialists.htm
9. https://www.udacity.com/course/front-end-web-developer-nanodegree–nd001




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