Bernie Sanders has excited a lot of young people to his campaign with a promise of free college. Wait, no. As he would correct you every time you say it, Bernie Sanders has excited a lot of young people to his campaign with a promise of tuition free public colleges and universities.
That's understandable. The cost of a higher education keeps climbing, and you can't blame young people for flocking to the candidate who promises to make that cost zero. Go to a public school, get an education, pay nothing in tuition. What's not to like? It's like finding a large body of stored water in a desert.
That's exactly what Bernie Sanders' plan is: A mirage.
No, not because it doesn't stand a snowball's chance in Satan's Den of passing Congress.
The Sanders plan is a mirage because it is a disaster appearing to be a solution from a distance, as written.
Though Bernie Sanders often justifies his call for free college by declaring that developed European nations already have this, his plan is in many ways the polar opposite of what Europe has. European nations practice a great deal of cost control, whereas Mr. Sanders' plan actually expressly discourages states and institutions from lowering cost. As if that weren't bad enough, it expects states, including the ones with Republican legislatures and governors, to foot a third of the bill. Combine these factors, and most students in most states may not even end up qualifying for Bernie's Free College.
Let's start at the shortsighted reliance on Republican governors and legislatures, which I believe to actually be the least serious of the fatal flaws of the Sanders plan.
Expecting Right Wing States to Foot a Third of the Bill Just Won't Cut It
Matthew Yglesias at Vox found the actual bill Sen. Sanders introduced in this session of Congress to make his free college, I mean tuition free public college plan a reality. Yglesias summed up the division of costs pretty well.
So, Bernie Sanders does not in fact take up the cost of paying for college all on the shoulders of the federal government, he merely employs a grant mechanism to fill in the gaps between what each state already subsidizes for undergraduate students in public colleges and universities. If you do not believe your state already pays the lion's share of the cost of your education at a public institution, I urge you to compare your in-state tuition at a public institution to that of private colleges. Because the state's taxpayers subsidize these public institutions of higher learning to a great degree, states tend to insist that a student asking to take advantage of that subsidy (an "in-state tuition") be a resident of the state.
Bernie Sanders has a response to the charge that states with Republican governors and legislatures will simply turn the feds away, a charge which Hillary Clinton has also been making on the campaign trail, that he delivered in an interview on CNN.
As we have been seeing, Republican governors have cowered to public pressure in accepting Medicaid expansion, which affect a much smaller number of people and is funded by the federal government 90% in perpetuity. Wait, that's not reality. The reality is that as I write, Republican governors and legislatures are keeping 4.3 million Americans from getting health care that would essentially be free to those states just for spite.
As Yglesias correctly points out, additionally, Sanders' bill provides no extra support for California and Vermont and other "good actors" to absorb the students from "bad actors" like Wisconsin, Florida, and Texas. Bernie's plan does not cover out-of-state student costs. The only way for "good actor" states to absorb these students and get some help from Sen. Sanders' plan is for them to treat out-of-state students as in-state students. But doing so would raise costs exponentially, as a much greater state tax revenue will be needed to subsidize out-of-state students. This increased cost would not be covered by Bernie's matching grants.
The issue of costs leads us straight into the next, more serious flaw in the Sanders plan.
Sanders College Plan Actually Punishes States for Lowering Costs
Under Title I, Sec. 101 (c) of the Sanders plan as introduced in the Senate, we find this:
Say, what? In order to get the Bernie grant, states are forced to either hold or increase their per-student spending. So if a state, let's say California, were to find an effective way to reduce per-pupil cost without reducing the quality of education students get, California - and all of California's public college and university undergraduates - would instantly become ineligible for the assistance Bernie Sanders is proposing.
Many institutions - both private and public - are already finding ways to reduce cost without degrading quality of education, for example by increasing online classes and distant learning or allowing students to take classes at a nearby college and transfer credit for a course their main institution does not offer at all at a time convenient for the student rather than starting a brand new class or department. All of these efforts would be undermined by Sanders' plan, and the success of those efforts would bring punishment from a Sanders Department of Education.
If Sanders merely wanted to stop states from cutting and passing the cost onto the federal government, he could have done so by mandating that the federal government did not pay a greater percentage of the tuition from one year to the next, rather than by mandating state spending.
When Bernie Sanders' cavalier attitude towards states that would not take the money he is offering is coupled with states like California that have seen some success in lowering the cost of higher education, even the states previously viewed as "good actors" might not end up qualifying for the Sanders Free College Plan.
In essence, the Sanders plan would force institutions of higher learning to increase their costs in order to stay tuition free to their in-state students. This pressure for cost growth rather than containment is sure to quickly blow up the cost of implementing the program as well, turning it into nothing more than a racket for public institutions the way for-profit education is a racket for for-profit colleges.
Hillary Clinton's College Compact, on the other hand, encourages and rewards colleges and states for lowering cost without sacrificing quality.
"But other countries can do it, why not us?" This is often the question of both first attack and last resort. The question is formed on the basis of mostly European models of higher education, which are themselves deeply flawed and are guilty of holding back students based on test scores.
The European "Free College" Model
European countries not only generally deal with a centralized higher education system rather than a multitude of public and private systems that can exist even within a state in the US, they employ cost controls that won't sit well with most Americans.
In France, for example, entry to university is severely restricted by the French Baccalauréat exams, administered in three levels which determine both what a student can study and in which universities. Only students who make the cut can go to top public institutions - which makes their parents ability to afford private tutors a key factor, regardless of the students' background, educational and extracurricular achievements.
Another reason European countries can keep cost under control is because their faculty is far less well compensated than in the United States. In many European countries, tenure is near impossible to achieve (9% in Germany) or simply doesn't exist (UK). Bernie Sander's plan, on the other hand, mandates that the states receiving help to create no-cost tuition for students employ 75% of their higher education staff either on tenure or on a tenure track.
While tenure is an effective way to retain top faculty and makes sure they don't simply leave for higher-paying private institutions, it also increases cost. Europe essentially deals with this problem by having far fewer private institutions, and some European countries have none.
Bernie Sanders is not giving us a European model, because he knows that there's no way the US could practice the type of centralized control over education that European countries have, and that an attempt to do so would both be hardline radical and unconstitutional.
What Bernie Sanders is giving us is the other extreme. He is giving us a plan that relies on states, including red states, to chip in $1 for every $2 the federal government puts in. He is giving us a plan that forces states and institutions to grow cost and punishes them for innovating to reduce cost. He is giving us a plan that is, as designed, impossible to implement. He is giving us a plan that gets all the fundamentals wrong.
[Author's note and acknowledgment: Dr. Suman Sen, who has served as a fellow and as a faculty member at Penn State, noted the differences between the Euroepan and American systems first in an email to me, and I thank him for pointing me in the right direction for the last section of this essay.]