Despite losing the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders and his supporters are still influencing the election. Hillary Clinton has incorporated aspects of Sanders' ideas for college affordability into her own, shifting from a plan that emphasized debt-free college to one that would eliminate college tuition for families with annual incomes under $125,000. However, the new plan stop short of providing free tuition to all students at public colleges, as Sanders proposed.
Why is it important?
College tuition—and by extension, student debt—is a major issue for young voters. According to the Federal Reserve, national student debt now stands at approximately $1.2 trillion and is growing at $3055 per second (watch it here, and read the first Short Version on student debt here.) Ten years ago, the national student loan balance was only $447 billion.
Approximately 70% of college graduates leave school with student loan debt, compared to less than 50% twenty years ago. Today, student debt is the second-largest source of consumer debt in the US, topping credit card and car loan debt, beat only by mortgages. Given rising costs of a college education and continued underemployment of college graduates, student loan debt is set to become a major issue of the 2016 presidential campaign— and it has the potential to become a crippling economic crisis.
Should college be free at public schools?
Free college tuition seems like a good idea. Unfortunately, it isn't, for three reasons.
First, neither Sanders' plan not Scotland's example successfully make public college free; in other words, it doesn't work. Sanders' plan would match state funds to eliminate tuition, even though 47 states have cut higher education spending since 2008. And in Scotland, poor students have more debt, not less, because they still take on loans to pay for living expenses.
Second, free tuition would allow affluent students the same benefits as those who really need them—a needless windfall for wealthy Americans and a misuse of government funds.
And finally, sending more students to public colleges is not the goal. The goal is to allow students exceptional learning opportunities while setting them up for successful careers. Instead of cementing college as the only pathway to success, we should be adding more diverse, practical options to higher education—like technical and trade schools.
Higher education should be attainable for every American who wants it.
Given gradual tuition increases and cuts in state spending, students are shackled to astronomical amounts of debt just for getting a good education. We need meaningful and dramatic change to this system—free college tuition at public schools.
Every student should have the opportunity to graduate from a public institution without taking on any student debt. Hillary Clinton's plan to eliminate college tuition for families with annual incomes under $125,000 is a good one, but we need to go further.
We can look to Scotland as an example: the country abolished college tuition in 2000. As a result, students were more likely to apply to college and study a broader range of subjects than those in England, where tuition was (and is) still increasing.
With student debt a larger source of consumer debt than credit cards, we urgently need to reform our higher education system. We can start with making it attainable for all.