Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sen. Bernie Sanders's Free College Tuition Plan Is Feasible Under Specific Conditions

Many students entering college are overwhelmed by the demands of the courses. More needs to be done to ensure only those who are thoroughly prepared merit free college tuition.

In a recent salon.com piece, noted author Camille Paglia wrote :

"It is an intolerable scandal that college costs, even at public universities, have been permitted to skyrocket in the U.S., burdening a generation of young adults with enormous debt for what in many cases are worthless degrees. The role played by the colleges themselves in luring applicants to take crippling, unsecured loans has never received focused scrutiny."

"The annual college ranking by U.S. News & World Report, which began in 1983, triggered a brand-name hysteria among upwardly mobile parents and turned high school into the nightmarish, gerbil-wheel obsession with college applications that it remains today....The steady rise in college tuition, leading to today’s stratospheric costs, began in the 1980s and was worsened by a malign development of the 1990s:  the rapid swelling of a self-replicating campus bureaucracy, whose salaries exceeded those of most faculty."

These points are germane as they pertain to Sen. Bernie Sanders's proposed free college tuition plan, which I will show here can feasibly work - provided we adopt some specific assumptions . The key condition or assumption can be found in a recent Wall Street Journal article (Feb. 24, p. A6) that dealt with Sanders benefiting from a free tuition plan at Brooklyn College in 1959. We learn, in fact, that: 

"Eighteen year old Bernie Sanders didn't pay for tuition for his freshman  year and neither did 8,000 other undergraduates."

We further learn that "New York City's public colleges didn't charge for  tuition back then for students who attended full time during the day."

How could this be achieved? The answer is also embedded in the piece, which provides a perspective on the history of free tuition though it is inappropriately titled 'Sanders's Free Tuition Failed Cost Test In The Past'.  On the contrary, free tuition succeeded in passing the cost test in the past precisely because "free tuition colleges flourished at a time when student enrollment was small."

In other words, when college was still regarded as the province of the select, academically able - it was workable. It isn't now because virtually everyone considers it the only ticket to a better life. But this is belied by the facts that: a) Many incoming students require remedial courses (e.g. in math, English)  just to get on a basic academic footing - driving up costs, and b) a large number (in some cases nearly 60 percent) drop out but still have massive loans to pay off.  Both these problems and expanding college costs would be managed in a Sanders-type tuition program by reducing the total population enrolling.

This elicits the question of where will the bulk of students leaving high schools funnel their aptitudes and energies if not in 4-year colleges and universities? The answer is in vocational-technical areas, for which there are many mid-level aptitude jobs available (e.g. aircraft mechanics, auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers etc, )

Are HS grads too "good" for these jobs? That's nonsense given the entire German labor system is predicated on apprenticeship for a craft. A terrific aspect of the German "master craftsman" model is that once one gets through the program required - including taking a number of examinations- he receives the equivalent recognition (including a certificate) of a Bachelors' degree. This is achieved with no additional cost.

The nature of master craftsmen in different countries can be found here:


Clearly, the U.S. is in need of a similar system as opposed to expecting all HS grads go through the college route.

Another alternative is to make more use of the community college system and tailor HS guidance counseling to seriously consider the A.A. degree as opposed to pushing unqualified students into 4 year schools.  In his Dec. 14, 2014 piece on community colleges used for Voc-tech preparation,  education writer Dick Hilker quoted Rhonda Bentz (Colorado's media and government relations director) :

"the Voc-Technical route is the educational system's best kept secret. Students come for two year degrees and then get real jobs."

As Hilker goes on to note:

"In other words there are solid alternatives to spending big bucks at Big State U. to major in Tibetan Culture or Music Appreciation before winding up as a clerk at Mega-Mart."

A brutally frank observation, but which no rational person can dispute.

What does this all add up to? Well, that lenders need to be much more rigorous in terms of lending qualifications. It makes no sense to loan to those who are much more likely to struggle in completing a 4 year degree, and also have trouble repaying the loan.

All this means getting rid of the fanciful expectation that "college is for everyone". It therefore implies the corollary that free college tuition cannot be for everyone.

Of course, Sanders's Policy Director (Warren Gunnels), is not fond of this solution because, well, it lacks the "broad appeal" of just making tuition free to everyone without qualification. That implies Bernie wouldn't get as many young backers, but then it also means his campaign is more grounded in reality and less liable to attack by fiscal critics who brand it pie in the sky.

Let's even say his 50 c tax on each Wall Street trade starts out raking in the coppers, say to achieve the needed $750b over ten years. But how long is that likely to continue? Eventually the traders (and quants)  will figure out a refined scheme rendering those taxed trades redundant or too obscure. Then how will all that tuition be paid for? I also don't buy Gunnel's worry (ibid.) that if the policy isn't broad most people will treat it as a special "welfare program"

No, it won't be because in order to qualify the recipients will have to demonstrate sterling academic requirements like at least a 3.0 grade average and a minimal SAT score , say in the upper quartile.  The last is especially more justified now as the SAT standards have been melted down to the point there's no longer even an essay portion, guessing is no longer penalized and the multiple choice options have been reduced to 4, from 5. I mean, cheese Louise! But then the SAT is no longer even regarded as a scholastic aptitude test, see e.g.


 In addition, if high standards aren't kept up, judging the GPA after the first semester or more likely the first year, then the recipient stands to lose the free tuition. So in other words we have a meritocratic tuition program, not simply a mindless 'gimme' free for all.

This is how Bernie's free tuition program can work, and though its expectations have been  dramatically lowered from the stratosphere, they are more in line with fiscal and educational reality.  It can also be more aggressively defended as a practical solution and not just socialist jabberwocky or inflated political promising.

The bottom line is that no free tuition program should be expected for students not academically inclined in the first place, or who need remedial courses just to catch up with peers. Or those likely to drop out before completing their degrees.

All of which militates for the country to seek alternative training and educational paths for the bulk of the population.

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