Bernie Sanders was (Mostly) Right
2-4 years of post-secondary technical training, apprenticeships, and traditional college should be a public good available to all who are interested and qualify—funded by state and federal taxes.
President Biden’s decision to forgive up to $20,000 in federal student loans has produced cries of joy and support in many quarters and frustration and anger in others. Setting aside the expected partisan positions on the issue, is the plan a good idea on balance? Yes. No. Maybe. Too early to tell. Who knows? It’s hard to evaluate at this point separate from personal or political reactions.
If implemented, Biden’s debt forgiveness plan will undoubtedly be a huge relief to millions of people. At the same time, as numerous critics have stated, the plan seems a bit half-baked and prone to all sorts of unintended economic consequences, legal challenges, and perceptions of the government favoring the privileged. President Biden himself shared many of these concerns before shifting his position.
Two specific criticisms of the plan are worth taking seriously: (1) Debt forgiveness does little to nothing for most current and all future students in terms of addressing the absurd costs of college; and (2) It’s manifestly unfair for the federal government to dedicate substantial public resources to reduce debts for one class of Americans but not another based solely on their education choices.
A suitable response to these shortcomings will not be found in either doing nothing about the matter or in creating a new status quo of debt forgiveness, more indebtedness, and more debt forgiveness—the expressed or implicit positions of the two major parties. Instead, perhaps the best solution to the higher education affordability crisis lies in the most social democratic approach on offer: America should treat post-secondary education—including both traditional 4-year college and other technical and apprenticeship programs—as a public good that is open to everyone but not required and paid for by all Americans through taxes.
Bernie Sanders, in his Senate career and presidential campaigns, has long advocated for a version of this idea in what he and his supporters unfortunately call “free college”—a term that is both incorrect and politically knuckleheaded. Colleges and other post-secondary training programs are obviously not free. They cost a lot and require dedicated resources. And we can’t just expect rich people to pay for it all or put the costs on the national credit card. A universal program requires universal access plus everyone having skin in the game.
Despite the bad label, the basic concept of state-funded higher education is a good one for a country dedicated to economic growth, equality, and self-preservation in the world. If we truly value the role that higher education plays in preparing young Americans for life, citizenship, and the workforce, then we need to affirmatively invest in post-secondary education through normal state and federal legislative processes funded by new or additional taxes paid by everyone.
It will cost a lot of money to do this but it’s certainly a more rational and transparent approach to higher education than the quasi-predatory loan scheme currently in place.
Unlike K-12, and counter to the Sanders’ formulation, higher education in this model would not be a right for everyone, meaning schools must accept everyone, but instead would be open equally to all Americans at minimal direct cost to those students who are both interested in post-secondary education or training and qualified to enter these programs. This is not “college for everyone” but rather training and college for all who want it and are willing to put in the work at a higher level beyond high school.
How would it work? Basic tuition costs and institutional support would be paid through legislative appropriations by states to expand public university systems, community colleges, and other programs with additional funding provided by Congress. States would determine how to pay for their individual systems while new federal funding would come from a dedicated revenue stream—either direct taxes on individuals and businesses or a new consumption tax. If we’re going to do this right, the goal should be to pay for what we value—therefore no deficit spending on higher education or unsustainable individual loans. All funding and taxes need to be approved by voters and legislators through elections and normal legislative processes. Some states might pay more for their systems and offerings, some less. But federal funding would guarantee a base level of support for higher education for all who want it and qualify.
In order for this to succeed and address the two main criticisms of Biden’s debt forgiveness plan—high costs and unfairness—new state and federal funding for higher education should be tied to three additional requirements: (1) Reducing the overall cost of these programs per student; (2) Demanding these institutions do real work and produce results with genuine oversight; and (3) Treating all higher education options equally, including both traditional 4-year colleges and other types of education and training through technical/professional schools, apprenticeships, or partnerships with private employers.
These requirements will help to make sure that no taxpayer money goes for fancy student halls or sports facilities or other high-cost items not tied to education. Taxpayer funds won’t be used for students’ housing, food, and computers or phones. Just the tuition itself. Rich donors and alumni can pay for the fancy perks. Work-study grants, part-time jobs, and other post-graduate arrangements—including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, recently revamped by Biden, that offers loan reduction to those who work in government, the military, and service organizations—can help students deal with additional costs. Taxpayer funds also won’t go to subsidize expensive private schools as they do now through the existing student loan scheme. Elite private schools can use their endowments to pay their students’ tuition if they want or students who want to go to these schools can choose to pay the costs on their own.
New public funding should be reserved for basic student education at state public schools and other related institutions. If a state wants to open access to religious or other smaller independent schools without huge endowments, they can create a model for doing so that doesn’t cost more than what they would spend for a comparable public spot. Increased quality and access at state institutions should put competitive pressure on private colleges and other programs to lower their costs and cut out administrative fluff and other amenities not related to instruction and learning. If overall costs at both public and included independent schools and programs don’t stabilize or come down, tuition and fee caps will need to be considered by legislatures and Congress to better protect taxpayers and students.
Likewise, governments must not accept colleges and other programs sucking up tax dollars and passing students through without meeting any standards or requirements. State and federal oversight will need to be much more rigorous with ongoing scrutiny of educational outcomes if society is going to pay the bulk of the cost for higher education. The point of a state-funded higher education model is to prepare young people and new workers of all kinds to make a good living and contribute to a stronger American economy, along with expanding their knowledge and understanding of the world. Done right, these standards can help make college or training programs more effective and worth the money.
And most importantly, a new system of public higher education must not favor traditional 4-year college over other options for people. The new structure needs to include equal funding and availability for Americans who would prefer technical or professional training in computer science, engineering, advanced manufacturing, teaching, health care, or other fields that don’t always require a traditional bachelor’s degree. Funds should also be available for those who want direct work apprenticeships with private employers or trade unions. Again, the goal is not to create college for everyone but to create a higher education system that meets the needs of individuals and society. No more pitting Americans against one another based on their education choices and interests. All choices will be treated equally.
Higher education is a massively complicated and convoluted public policy challenge. Unfortunately, Biden’s debt cancellation intervention will probably make these issues even more polarized politically than they were before. But one thing we know for certain—the current costs of college are crazy and student debt is an unjust and ineffective way of dealing with it. It doesn’t serve America’s interests to treat post-secondary education as an unaffordable luxury item for select people rather than as a public good.
If Americans decide they don’t like Biden’s debt forgiveness approach, which is perfectly understandable, the nation should start debating alternatives now including the potential for a much more rational and useful system of state funding for all forms of higher education—supported by and open to all Americans.