Bernie Sanders’ Free Ride to Failure

Next Stop, Failure

“It’s time to make college tuition free and debt free.” I can imagine the loud, Brooklyn accent and the messy, white hair as I read those words. And I appreciate the sentiment: Education matters, and we should try to make it both accessible and excellent. There’s also no question that our schools underserve minority and low-income students, many of whom would struggle to pay for any amount of post-secondary education, and that college tuition in general is unreasonably high, often costing more than it’s worth. I agree with all that, and yet, I disagree with Bernie Sanders’ proposal.

One of the reasons I disagree is that it seems to suggest that the most important reason some students are not going to college is that they simply cannot pay for it. If they could pay, they would go. If they went, they would succeed. (And this would result in a well-educated and productive workforce.) There are undoubtedly some students for whom this is true. Someone very close to me, in fact, is in this boat, and would, I think, go to college if it were less expensive. However, it is laughable to think that most low-income students fail to graduate from college simply because it costs too much. I know there are arguments to be made about the economic outcomes of a socialized higher education system, but I do not address them here–I am no economist. But I am an educator who has taught in one of the lowest performing schools in one of the lowest performing districts–I write from that perspective, and in defense of my students.

In the district where I taught, some schools had a graduation rate of just over 50%.These were always schools representing low-income neighborhoods. District wide, the rate was around 70%, but for Black and Latino students, the number was significantly lower. With just over half of the most disadvantaged students even graduating from high school, and those that did graduate hardly mastering the kinds of critical thinking, analytical writing, and creative problem-solving that actually matter, it is ridiculous to suggest that what they really need is free college. Of all the barriers between my students and college graduation, cost is the least worrisome to me. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if their experience in the education system does not change, making college free would actually put them in a worse situation.

By making college tuition free, a college degree would probably become even more common and even more expected in the workplace. In many ways, a bachelor’s degree has already become what a high school degree was a generation ago. This would likely become even more the case, effectively channeling degreeless students to dead-end, low-wage jobs (and in some situations, to gangs). Being able to pay for a degree is only part of the struggle. You also need to actually pass your classes and persevere in a major over time–and that requires social support, access to relevant resources, the ability to navigate the system, and a mastery of fundamental academic skills. These are precisely the things the school system is so often failing to provide.

Giving someone a free ride to failure is no service. Simply making college tuition free without first changing the way K-12 education works will disadvantage the already disadvantaged. But it might benefit the middle class–those who already understand the system and have a social network that will connect them to college and support them through it. In my mind, at least, making college free for those who would already succeed in it is not particularly noble.

I’d rather think about how to embed these low-income students into wider, more powerful social networks, how to expand their access to resources, and how to provide them with better understandings of and preparation for college and/or career. I even think we could make K-12 education so much better than it currently is that students would graduate from high school with the competencies and understandings roughly equivalent to those held by many of today’s college graduates. That may be a pipe dream, but that is the kind of vision that inspires me. Rather than trying to extend a dysfunctional school system four more years, let’s change the system. Before we make college free for the privileged, let’s make high school work for the marginalized.


5 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders’ Free Ride to Failure

  1. I appreciate where you’re coming from: the point you make about degree inflation, as well as the primary need to improve secondary education and college-readiness in underserved, minority, low-income students is important. Making college free certainly won’t make everyone academically prepared for the rigors of college. However, I don’t see tuition as an appropriate or effective way to filter out underprepared potential students. Universities can often decide who they admit, so it seems to me that the best way to make sure that the most capable students are those who attend is to make academic indicators like GPAs, SATs, and ACTs be the only (or principle) criterion and limiter for college admittance. Having more people going to university, as you posit, would certainly increase degree inflation/expectations, but by choosing to keep tuition high as a means of mitigating that, we are choosing the population that needs to be kept out of universities in order to maintain its exclusivity. That population is those who can’t pay, regardless of scholastic achievement. By lifting the burden of tuition, and, if necessary, imposing stricter academic standards, we would be maintaining this need for exclusivity required in a competitive capitalist economy, but we would do so by squeezing out prospective students on the basis of academic merit rather than affluence.

    Opposing comments on blogs can often come across as combative or antagonistic, so I just want to make sure to clarify that that is not my intention in the slightest. I appreciate your blog and your thoughtful opinions, and wanted to put in my take on things. 🙂

    (Note: I’m currently a college student at BYUI in my junior year.)

    1. Amy, I’m so glad you commented—and it didn’t come across as combative or antagonistic. I’m not sure metrics like grades and test scores are any better than tuition, though, because they derive from an inequitable system. In other words, grades and test scores are not normally distributed across the population; they skew in favor of white, upper (middle) class students—those by and for whom the system is built. I’m not actually saying we should simply maintain the status quo, but I’m struck by one virtue of the tuition system: students could meet that requirement through resources obtained outside the school system.

    2. Hi Amy, thank you for your well-measured insight and response. I’m wondering if academic scholarships fulfill the conditions you mention–if a student does well enough (4.0 in all advanced classes and 36 on ACT, let’s say?) I can’t picture them not going to college because they can’t afford it. They WILL go to college (probably for free), right?

      1. That’s a good point I hadn’t thought a lot about; in a big way, academic scholarships do serve a similar (if less direct) function as a merit-based filter for college admittance. So, I think you’re right — the current system of scholarships *does* fulfill the conditions I put forth.

        I guess, at the heart of things, I’m really just wishing there was room for everyone in school — at least all those who would do well enough to make what is currently defined as acceptable grades. The way things are right now, with the stringent filter of scholarships, is that those of less means must compete with stellar grades to stay afloat, while those who can afford it can get by with B’s and C’s. (Unless, of course, they’re applying to a prestigious school.)
        But, in a way, maybe requiring great grades isn’t such a bad thing — we want students who take their studies seriously, after all. It still feels like a bit of a double-standard to me, though. Only the “above average” student can benefit, and anyone truly above average, by definition, relies on a lot of others not making the cut.

        The really difficult thing, as David Sabey conveyed, is that if we had no money-filter and an only-moderate academic one (one in which we only expected students to be able to make typical grades), our universities could be flooded, and degrees would be so common that they would no longer lend the same competitive edge in the job market.

        I lived in Argentina with my family for a few months when I was fifteen, and we saw this first effect hand. College is free there, so many people we met had degrees and were professionals in their fields. However, partly because of the general developmental and economic climate (shaped by many things, of course, including early colonial oppression and exploitation, many subsequent dictatorships, corruption, international relations, etc.) of the country, and partly because a degree is so attainable for anyone willing to study, many of those people we met were not well off. Receiving higher education was not the key to a higher standard of living that we would hope.

        So, admittedly, the ideal in my mind from which I form my thoughts is really to have as many people be able to go to school as possible. If tuition is the only thing keeping our society from the risk of being flooded with degree-holders, doesn’t that indicate a vast pool of untapped potential? In theory, it seems, most people share this goal. Teachers want to prepare *all* their student to attend university. And yet that goal, fully realized, would have the students stepping all over each others’ toes once it came time to apply for scholarships, and later for jobs! We’d be Argentina — at least in some ways. (Or France, Scotland, Germany …)

        I understand the argument in favor of maintaining some element of scarcity, which would require students to either fit the limiting categories of those who (a) make above-average grades, or those who (b) have thousands of dollars at their disposal. And yet, in spite of that, my personal conviction still falls on the side of “the more the merrier.” We should set an academic standard based on practical requirements, like what skills will be required of graduates in their professions, and then find a way to let in as many students as can meet those requirements. It seems to me that, the way scholarships are currently configured, the standard is set to distinguish between students so that only the “top” can be picked.

        I don’t know how it was back then, but I’ve always tended to imagine that having a high school diploma back when secondary education became universally available (in the U.S.) was comparable to having a bachelor’s degree today. If having a high school degree was the basic requirement for earning a comfortable life for oneself and one’s family, the bachelor’s degree has replaced it, doing what the HS diploma no longer can. So, one question (in my mind) to consider when debating the merits of a socialized higher education system is “What were our goals in socializing secondary education? Are they still being met?” To me, it appears that the privilege meant to be afforded to all hard-working students by secondary education has been diluted as our society has progressed and become more educated and competitive. The standard of living that we’d deemed necessary to make available to all through high school is not the same standard of living that is currently available to high school graduates. In order to fulfill the same objectives behind our public high school system, the “spirit of the law”, we now need to provide access to the new requirement of the 21st century: a university education.

        (I’m sorry this is so long! Yikes! Again, these are just my thoughts, and I know that in discussing big issues in such a [relatively] short space, as well as through limited understanding of the workings of the things discussed, such thoughts are only approximations, and are necessarily over-simplified/reductionist.)

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