An Open Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders: Your Free Tuition Policy is a Bad Idea

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Dear Senator Sanders,

I understand that you will introduce legislation tomorrow to make college tuition free across the United States. By doing this, you haven’t just met what President Obama suggested in his State of the Union Address a few months ago when he suggested free community college tuition. Rather, you are going all the way and taking a few large steps for mankind by suggesting zero tuition for all two- and four-year undergraduate colleges and universities. I appreciate the suggestion, but this is a very bad idea.

I understand and appreciate that you are a rare bird in this somewhat decrepit age of politics. While you are in your 74th year, you are a breath of fresh air with your belief that government plays a vital role in the health and welfare, let alone economy development, of the country as a whole.

Please understand that I share many of your views. But this one is off the mark. Unless there are some key details we clearly do not understand at this time, your policy would let those from more affluent backgrounds take advantage of massive government subsidies by giving them free tuition, too. Since higher education is skewed towards more affluent students, then they would be taking more advantage of the policy than those who actually need the relief.

Let’s put this in perspective. The New American Foundation states that the federal government provided $67 billion in grants, tax benefits, and work study funds to students and families in 2014.[1] Add in another $99 billion in federal loans that were dispersed, and the total is $166 billion in federal aid. If we use the College Board’s data, institutional aid, state aid, and federal aid collectively account for $250 billion per year.[2] None of this accounts what families actually pay out of pocket, which is considerable. For instance, I use both savings and income to pay for my children’s tuition payments. None of this is accounted for in the figures above and is undoubtedly billions of dollars per year nationwide.

I am in complete agreement with you, Senator, that too many students pay too much money and have too much debt. In 2013, approximately 70 percent of college graduates had debt averaging $28,400. If a graduate was to start paying $300/month (a lot of money for a recent graduate) toward their loan, it would take 10 years to pay off (assuming 4 percent interest) with $5,800 in interest payments. That’s if they can afford to pay $300 a month. Remember, that $28k is an average. That debt load continues to rise, and 50 percent of those who borrow have more debt than $28k. If a student had $50,000 in loans, it would take 20 years to pay off with $23,000 in interest.

So your point is well taken: students face massive financial hurdles upon graduation from college. We won’t even talk about employment rates or new college salaries, which I’m sure you know is not very pretty.

There are several important points that I would like to bring to your attention regarding your free tuition policy:

  1. The federal government—the one you work for—could not afford to do this. The sheer cost of this policy would send vibrations through the economy and likely force us into a depression. Either by the huge load it would have on the federal budget or by the incredibly large tax increases you would have to pass to balance the policy. Although, and I’m sure you have thought this out, if you could convince the Republican-controlled House and Senate to shrink the military down to a more appropriate size, perhaps you might be able to fiscally manage this policy. You’ve been a good Senator, Mr. Sanders, but you aren’t that good.
  2. The federal government should not bail out states for imprudent public policy over the past several decades. States have simply not done their part on supporting colleges and students while also controlling costs. Shame on them, and us taxpayers shouldn’t allow the feds to bail them out.
  3. Similarly, the federal government should not bail out institutions for acting in a similarly manner to the states that manage most of them. Sure, institutions have had a hard hand doled out to them by the states, but they have taken advantage of it by shoving the losses onto students and families through incredibly high tuition hikes.
  4. Most of us—including you until one of your staffers thought this would be a good idea for your Presidential campaign—believe that individuals should share in the cost of a higher education, no matter what their income is. Should the cost be predicated on income? Yes. Without doubt. But everyone should pay in at least something, with those who are more affluent paying considerably more in tuition and fees. Free tuition is regressive in that it aids the highest income earners more than any other stratum. You should know better. This is a fairness issue, and relates to the fact that…
  5. If tuition were free, then we would see even a larger abuse of the system than we do now. People have to buy in to the shared agreement between government and individuals. We see students who go to college simply because they can and they “hang” out because it is the easiest way of life they will ever know. Many aren’t learning. Many aren’t graduating. They’re just doing time. We’ve seen it up close in our campus-based research. Hundreds of thousands of students currently in college should not be, either because they are ill prepared academically or they are not ready socially for that type of existence.
  6. Free tuition would help proliferate the existence of colleges and universities—and not just for profits, but also publics—that should not be in business. Sure, we have safeguards, like accreditation (I write this line with a big smirk on my face), but how often do you hear of colleges losing their accreditation? Kind of makes the accreditation system look somewhat like a joke, don’t you think? There are about 4,000 public and private, non-profit institutions in the US. And none of them seem to ever lose accreditation. That’s simply incredible. Regardless, free tuition would allow more of these institutions to operate rather than simply go away.

I’m pretty sure you have more specifics to roll out tomorrow, so perhaps my letter is premature. I apologize in advance. I’m certain you’ll have some way of showcasing how you would pay for this. I really hope it isn’t that too-often-used-ideal that this will generate more jobs and more taxes, yada yada. That isn’t always true. Ask all the unemployed BA graduates out there how much they are currently paying in taxes. You’ll be surprised.

Thanks again for your interest in propping up the US economy through higher education. Your point, as stated, is well taken. But I hope you will come to your senses, hire a new education consultant and/or staffer, and bring us more prudent policies in the future that we can take seriously.

Respectfully submitted,

Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D.




5 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Senator Bernie Sanders: Your Free Tuition Policy is a Bad Idea

  1. I have a child who’s loan was 18,000 and now it is 60,000 from private loans. How can I help to get her this debt. I was just informed of their situation. Please advise.

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