"This is not a radical idea." It's the first sentence of Bernie Sanders' statement on how he wants to make public college tuition free and debt-free. Sanders' website lists this as one of the major "issues" of his campaign platform, but college tuition is not simply an issue anymore: It's a problem, a crisis, a disaster. The accumulated debt that students graduate with is the second highest commercial debt in the US, topping $1.2 trillion in 2013. Let's put this into context: That's about the cost of 40 million semesters at USC, if you're not receiving any grants, scholarships or financial aid. That's how much student debt we have in the United States.
It seems like trying to eliminate this burden on our students, our economy and our taxpayers is not a radical idea, but rather a brilliant one. But is it also a possible, feasible plan?
As Jordan Weissmann, writer for The Atlantic, claims, our government could make college tuition free without spending a single extra penny. In fact, as a 2012 report from the Department of Education showed, the money spent on financial aid and other programs to make college more affordable outweighed the amount collected in tuition from undergrads that year.
Other countries, including Germany and many northern European states, have already done away with college tuition or made it so low that it's practically affordable to everyone, proving that a debt free college career is indeed possible. Harvard, a name that many high school seniors would more than love to see on their college admission letter, is also debating the option of banning tuition cost – as a private school. In the current run for prestigious seats in the Ivy League school's Board of Overseers, five candidates said they want the university to stop charging undergraduates tuition. Harvard gets $37.6 billion in endowments, which includes donations and other financial assets provided by outside sources – the money they get from tuition is comparably small. (A representative from Harvard pointed out that endowments are earmarked for special funds and designated for specific uses that are not related to student tuition.)
Confused about how endowments work? Click here.
So why is the average student loan borrower still graduating with $26,600 in debt? It's because we can't compare our educational system to Germany's or to a school that is so prestigious it gets $37.6 billion in endowments – the largest of any university in the United States. In Germany, education isn't just all about college. Many students choose to apply for traineeships or entrepreneurships, practice-oriented forms of higher education that still look promising with regard to job security, experience and financial stability. In fact, students in trainee programs actually get paid for the work they do, not just in a work-study fashion.
The implication of tuition-free public colleges in the United States would be, besides a reduction in student debt, a drastic increase in college applications, as long as there is no valid and promising alternative form of higher education. Students who can afford to avoid the increasing competition will simply go to private school. The result: Students from high-income households can avoid the negative effects of aspiring college students on the market because they're able to pay, while low-income students will struggle to keep up with the increased competition for public college admission. Over time, banning public college tuition might leave us in the same situation that we are in right now: The gap between college graduates from different financial backgrounds would widen again.
If Bernie Sanders became president and – through some miracle – got a bill that banned tuition from public colleges through Senate and Congress, not much might change on the long run. That qualifies it as a non-radical idea. But in order to actually bring about a shift towards both equality and affordability in college cost, he would need to do far more than just ban tuition. He would need a higher education reform package the size of student debt in the United States.