by Nolan Musslewhite '20
Among 2020 Dems, tuition-free higher education is a popular policy; Bernie Sanders’s official stance is that “all public colleges and universities should be tuition-free.” An analysis in the Atlantic also highlights Julian Castro, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Amy Klobuchar’s tacit or overt support for the policy.
Liberal proponents of free college education often point to Europe when advocating for the policy. However, in doing so they ignore fundamental differences between our education system and theirs; in other words, they desire an American system at European cost.
The central distinction is the number of students who go on to enroll in university or college; in Germany, for example, only about 30% of university-age students attend college. In the U.S. that number is roughly 70%, as of 2016. Of that 70%, moreover, about 73% attended public colleges, meaning that over 50% of American high school graduates go on to attend public college, more than 14.5 million.
Even without examining the underlying causes of this dichotomy (which I’ll do later in the article), it should be immediately evident that this raises several questions not only about the American glut of college attendees in general, but about 2020 Democratic hopefuls’ far-reaching plans.
First, economically speaking, the comparatively high number of American college attendees erodes the value of a college degree, because it confers less of a competitive advantage upon degree-earners and thereby equates to less real value. Clearly, this is a problem; if college isn’t to be free (which, as we shall soon see, is necessarily the case), then as more and more Americans attend college the net value of their degree declines further and further; even assuming that college costs remain constant (a very conservative estimate), the year-over-year erosion in the value of a college degree means that graduates find they earn less real return in their college investment.
What’s the problem with all this? Debt. The result of the combination of increasing costs and the erosion of degree value means that prospective graduates have to take on student debt to finance their education.
Democrats seek to tackle this problem from the demand-side; if we eliminate the cost, they say—just like Europe!—we can get rid of that debt problem and then everything will be fine.
Well, to return to the fundamental differences between the American and European education systems, the first reason that plan is untenable is cost; given that about 1.6x more American youths attend college on a percentage basis than Germans, for example, the burden on the American taxpayer would be far greater than that on the German taxpayer is now, even with Germany’s comparatively massive tax rates. Such a plan is in no way viable.
Now, to examine some of the reasons for such a difference between the college-attendance rates between the U.S. and Europe. In the European system, only the top x% (varying by country) of the class at various stages in education—say, at middle school, high school, and finally into college—qualify to stay on the “university track,” the end product being that only more academically-oriented students have the opportunity to attend university. So, while many point to the European college system as a great example of the equalizing effect of education for all, they overlook the central inequality—that undoubtedly, a large proportion of any crop of college-age students is precluded from attending college, instead led to attend vocational school or tertiary job training. Give, of course, a rather high European-level tax rate, this system has the happy outcome of filling vocational jobs (like plumbing, or metalworking) for which there are a dearth of workers in the States, largely due to the massive societal expectation of college attendance. Therefore, unless we in America are willing to swallow the bitter pill of massive taxation and government command of access to tertiary education—determining who can and cannot attend college, based on their academic performance—the policy of many 2020 Democratic hopefuls when it comes to higher education is truly a free college fantasy.