California Forum

College should be affordable, but free tuition for all is not the way

The Democratic platform might be leaning more to the left, but at least some candidates are willing to talk some common sense when it comes to the idea of free college tuition.

It’s true that too many college grads are carrying too much debt for their own good – and the nation’s. Young adults are putting off home buying and neglecting the retirement accounts. The long-term effects could drag down aspects of the national economy for decades to come.

But the “free college tuition” (at public institutions) is a simplistic campaign cry that doesn’t work out to good policy for students or for higher education. College needs to be affordable, but not necessarily free to all. Even low levels of debt shouldn’t be unimaginable. And any plan to greatly increase college access also must address college infrastructure: When lower costs mean many more students apply, the country faces the next challenge of building new colleges or expanding existing ones.

Help grads pay off their debt? Good idea, but completely forgiving their debt amounts to dissing all the graduates who carefully nurtured their pennies, attended less expensive schools, behaved frugally throughout their college years and worked hard to pay off their loans. What a bunch of chumps they might turn out to be!

It’s also disturbing that Sen. Bernie Sanders would do this for those who have attended graduate school, even when those schools produce highly paid professionals who can bear a certain amount of debt. Surely there are better places for new tax revenue to go than to the newest generation of lawyers.


Other candidates, such as Amy Klobuchar, offered more sensible ideas: Free community college, expanded Pell grants for low-income students to attend four-year schools and refinancing to reduce the existing debt load.

The goal here shouldn’t be to hand out four-year education as though it were candy. It should be to relieve a substantial part of the existing debt so that young adults can invest in their futures – which amounts to investing in the nation – and to create a livable, equitable path forward for bright students to attend four-year colleges.

Those students and their families also should have some skin in the game because students who make a reasonable financial investment in education tend to be more purposeful in going about their college years.

In fact, when you look at the most educated countries in the world as ranked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the few that have higher rates of college attainment than the United States (which ranks sixth) tend to follow that very pattern. Canada, for example, at the top of the pile, charges a little more than $5,000 in tuition. None of the top-five countries provide free tuition. Germany, frequently pointed to as the model of what we should become, isn’t even in the top 10.

Public college tuition in Germany may be free, but the slots are very limited in number and the college experience is a stripped-down version of what we are familiar with in the United States. Class sizes are larger and student-to-professor ratios are about three times higher than ours. As a result, there’s far less interaction between students and faculty. Dormitories are scant.

Karin Klein
Karin Klein

Candidates should be looking at the Swiss education system, as I’ve written before, where apprenticeships take the place of college for students in many fields, reducing the time and expense needed for them to move into the work world. By reducing the overwrought requirements for a four-year college education, the nation also could better afford to subsidize higher education in the fields where it’s truly needed.

In fact, probably the best model for affordable higher education is right here in California. It’s hard to guess why Kamala Harris hasn’t raised it as a practical yet inspiring call to action. Community college here is free though, even before that, it was a highly affordable option, one of the cheapest two-year college system in the nation. The state probably would have been better off retaining the low tuition and using the money for services that would help students complete their educations faster, saving them the hefty cost of living expenses and allowing them to start their careers earlier.

The California State University system resembles the Canadian system, with a highly subsidized four-year education costing less than $6,000 a year. The state takes it a step further, with tuition-free education for students from families with low to moderate incomes.

Tuition at the University of California is less than half the cost of private schools. UC also gives the state a reputation as a powerhouse for public research universities, provides a full ride to low- and moderate-income students and some financial aid for middle-class students.

But UC is also crowded and in danger of seeing its reputation tarnished as a result. That’s the downside of running a great and affordable public university system without major public expenditures on building and staffing adequate facilities.

It’s easier on the campaign trail to talk about gifts for individuals – the free tuition they’d get. The tougher and more ignored part requires investing in the infrastructure of higher education, a phrase that will never sound as catchy as the word “free.”

Karin Klein is a freelance journalist in Orange County who has covered education, science and food policy. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.
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