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Why the Sanders “College for All Act” Won’t Help Struggling Students

Why the Sanders “College for All Act” Won’t Help Struggling Students

by Dani Babb
March 01, 2016

As an educator who works for institutions that serve underrepresented and at-risk populations (particularly second or third chance students), I feel strongly about the role that colleges and universities play in changing lives and breaking undesirable socioeconomic cycles in order for our economy to grow, for individuals to work out of poverty and for the nation to be vibrant. I enjoy working with students who have been unsuccessful in their past academic pursuits, and for personal reasons choose to go back to school as adults. Often the only schools willing to accept students with a poor academic background are for-profit institutions or community colleges, and for-profit institutions often offer the most flexibility with online programs for working adults.

However, for-profit schools are not inexpensive. In fact, some studies show they are more expensive than nearly any other choice a student can make. Still, without for-profit schools willing to take a chance on these students, they risk never breaking the economic or education cycle they fell into at birth. Institutions are disincentivized to take on “risky students”, thanks largely to Gainful Employment rules which make federal funding impossible without meeting specific employment numbers after graduation. As anyone can clearly see, these rules, meant to protect students, harm those who have the most difficult time earning an education and breaking a poor socioeconomic cycle.

While leaving college (particularly if you didn’t graduate) with student loan debt is undesirable, the impact of not having a degree or the ability to work your way out of a low economic position is even less desirable. As a result, one candidate for President in particular, Senator Bernie Sanders, is calling for free college tuition in a bill introduced as the “College for All Act”, making four year public colleges and universities tuition-free. As an educator, I think “excellent, more students, better education, win-win”. But, unfortunately the Sanders plan won’t work and here is why.

The economic reasons:

  1. The plan would appear to cost roughly $70 billion per year. This is about double what is spent on Pell grants. A lot of this money would go to students who can afford their tuition, so it isn’t serving those who need it most.
  2. Our nation cannot afford it with mounting debt and lack of action in cutting spending.
  3. Making education cost less to deliver to the student can bring costs down and hasn’t been the focus of regulation thus far, instead focusing on subsidizing.

The government has been calling (and legislating) for higher quality education. The government has used arbitrary measurements like graduation rates and employment attained after graduation that disproportionately impacts those who need a second, third (or more) chance the most. These measurements don’t work, and were targeted at online and for-profit institutions in a political battle. But the need for quality education still exists. If tuition is free, will quality improve? We can make a fairly easy assumption, that the free market allows institutions to compete. We can also safely assume students want to go to schools with the best post-graduation success rates, flexibility, costs, etc. depending on their individual circumstances.

Sociological and Quality Reasons:

  1. Goods or services that are not valued or supported well financially tend to be of poor quality. Students need a quality education, not just any education.
  2. Free college would not lead to higher quality, flexible options and the competition in the marketplace that makes education in our country the best in the world. Competition drove online education. About 80% of students today take at least one course online, and that number is rising. Innovation is required in education just as it is in industry and will not happen without market competition.
  3. Private colleges competing with highly subsidized schools will struggle to innovate, and eventually struggle to thrive, and eventually struggle to survive. Do we want mediocre colleges?
  4. When the government is involved, more regulation ensues. Does anyone really think that institutions in the “plan” won’t become government puppets? Do we want higher educational institutions to be more like the post office? The DMV? Amtrak?

I agree that institutions need to be held accountable for the outcomes – how their students succeed after graduation, adjusted for the original socioeconomic status of their population (at risk students will continue to be a larger risk post graduation for many reasons). I would love to see students leave college with far less debt than they have today, but the answer is very low cost private loans, incentivizing creativity and innovation in education and more competition. The answer is not less competition and government subsidies – it hasn’t been in our history and isn’t today.

Image by United States Congress (http://sanders.senate.gov/) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons