What’s Missing from Bernie’s Free Tuition Plan?

Robert Gebelhoff, at WaPo:

It’s a tight race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, but Sanders has managed to gain a slight edge due to his support among young people — with more than 83 percent of college-age voters planning to vote for him. His lead among young people has been buoyed by his proposal to make public universities tuition-free, especially resonant in a state where the public university system recently underwent millions of dollars in cuts.

Yet the Vermont senator has been harshly criticized for his proposals.Conservatives balk at their hefty price tag while liberal opponents argue that they would serve as regressive benefits for already wealthy students. Sanders’s response is almost always the same: Many countries in Europe offer free tuition, so why can’t the United States?

In making this argument, however, Sanders terribly oversimplifies the complex field of higher education policy. Countries across the world have built a diverse array of college systems, including those free of tuition; but in many cases, lower price tags are the result of major public policy trade-offs. Despite the rhetoric, the United States’ tuition-based system has contributed to making the United States the top nation for higher education. In the end, comparisons between our system and those in Europe require much more nuance than can be offered in a stump speech.

The trade-offs are fairly standard. High enrollment rates, a high level of subsidization for higher education and a low cost to the government: Developed capitalist countries are able to achieve two of these three options, but not all three. Political scientists have referred to this as a “trilemma,” one that creates three distinct higher education outcomes.

In practice, the United States and its fellow liberal market economies — including Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and Ireland — generally fall into a category where college education is subsidized at a high level but where fewer students go to college, resulting in a lower cost to taxpayers but a smaller educated class.

Social market economies in the Nordic region — Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway (the countries Sanders holds up as exemplars of democratic socialism) — educate a large proportion of their population, but at a huge cost to the public.

The other countries in Europe — including Austria, Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and the Netherlands — have fallen loosely into a third model, where a relatively large number of students go to school at a lower cost to taxpayers, but schools don’t have the same subsidy support as in other countries and have to charge tuition. (Note: Germany has recently moved to a free college system, but the data included below — the latest available — are from before that change.)…

It’s one thing to prefer one part of the trilemma over another — but shifting from one category to another is extremely difficult. Sanders’s vision of free or heavily subsidized college in the United States would require a massive restructuring of higher education infrastructure.

Many of the governments that fully subsidize their universities have unitary control of the institutions, meaning that they have a single national minister who oversees the entire higher education system. The United States, however, doesn’t have a federal director for public universities; in fact, public schools operated at the state level often have their own systems of governance, meant to afford them further autonomy over their operations and budgets.

"To tell the story of the dawn of the age of authenticity is to show ..."

The Age Of Youthfulness
"We are likely in agreement -- language often gets in the way. For example, I ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"I worry, a little, we emphasize the literalness of these stories too much. For example, ..."

An Ancient Document (RJS)
"Thanks, Scot. Any idea when the other volumes will begin to appear?"

A Series For Preachers

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment