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Bernie Sanders Proposes Free Tuition, But Can It Work?

You've probably already heard about Sen. Bernie Sanders' free-college tuition bill, which that promises a tuition-free education, so students can attend state colleges or universities with little cost. It sounds like a great idea, right? We'd no longer be able to complain about all the uneducated masses. Every student would have access to training to land them a career they'd love, without the burden of crushing student loan debt. Employers would have access to a more highly skilled pool of applicants. Eventually, even the economy as a whole could improve. So why isn't everyone on board?

You’ve probably already heard about Sen. Bernie Sanders’ free-college tuition bill, which that promises a tuition-free education, so students can attend state colleges or universities with little cost. It sounds like a great idea, right? We’d no longer be able to complain about all the uneducated masses. Every student would have access to training to land them a career they’d love, without the burden of crushing student loan debt. Employers would have access to a more highly skilled pool of applicants. Eventually, even the economy as a whole could improve. So why isn’t everyone on board?

bernie sanders

(Photo Credit: John Pemble/Flickr)

1. From Whence Comes Moneybags?

The simple reality is that in order to just give away a free education, there must be a renewable source of funding. Sanders proposes to build his free-education scheme by taxing Wall Street. Ultimately, it would be a shared-cost plan, with shared federal and state responsibility (reminiscent of President Obama’s free community college plan). 

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2. Reinvent the Wheel

While it may sound great to just make the government foot the bill (with monies from the “rich guys” on Wall Street), there are already programs in place that are designed to help students attend college. With the Lottery Scholarship, put into place by the New Mexico State Legislature in 1996, more than 97,000 local students have attended public colleges and universities in New Mexico (only 38,000 graduated). Arkansas and Tennessee both have similar programs in place, as well. 

So, the poorest states in the US are supporting “free education” (restrictions apply), and all states have programs and funding opportunities available. So, instead of making broad, sweeping statements about the lack of free education, we need to first look at what is working and find ways to replicate those programs for students across the U.S. 

3. A Question of Survival

When you say “free education,” we also need to consider factors beyond tuition. Just because tuition is covered doesn’t mean that we all could survive long enough to attend all the classes needed to complete a degree. While housing and food allowances are often available to low-income students, some of the most basic necessities of survival are still required. And, those questions of what is needed, and how to juggle work and college classes, are just a small piece of the gigantic puzzle that makes it so difficult for all those bright-eyed students to earn a degree.

4. Prepare and Qualify? 

Before opening the flood-gates of “free education” for all, at colleges and universities, we also must address more basic questions of skills and preparation. It’s nice to say that we should just all go to college to gain the skills we need to succeed in our careers (and life). But, with the lack of very basic lack of skills in graduating high-school students, colleges are increasingly required to offer remedial skills. So, in a sense, we’d not really be offering “free college,” but simply an extension of the overworked and under-resourced free public education system. And, the “free college” system would thus be further overworked and under-resourced, because (after all) what can we really expect for free?

The bottom line is, it’s a lovely soundbite, and I’m sure we all wish that we’d been able to achieve an education without going so far into debt. I hope (at least) that we all want to learn, and I know that we all want to pursue those career goals that are still only possible through education. The question is: How do we make it happen, even for the most impoverished among us? 

A free-for-all sounds great! Now, let’s make it happen … in a real, actionable and far-ranging way, beyond just a bunch of potentially empty campaign promises. 

Tell Us What You Think

Are you excited about the prospect of a free college education? Or, are you secretly lamenting the fact that all of this talk never materialized soon enough for you to avoid that mountain of debt from your degree? We want to hear from you! Leave a comment or join the discussion on Twitter.

Esther Lombardi
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art mclaren

we used to have public colleges in the USA. they went the route of the dollar. the one persons responsible
for the disappearance is your friend and mine “Ronald, the meanie, Reagan”. also, the disappearance of
most jobs is attributable to him. get the taxes to pre Reagan and wallah!

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