Skip to content

Can college really be free?

Free Education

There is an increasingly louder debate that echoes throughout academia about whether or not college should be free.  Many politicians have proposed this idea, but none have championed it as publicly as Bernie Sanders did during the 2016 presidential primaries. Below is an overview of his proposal to make college free in the United States and the reasons why it will probably never happen.

Vermont native Senator Bernie Sanders struck a chord with college students that had huge outstanding student loans during the Democratic primaries in 2016.  His supporters were extremely passionate about his promise to make college free.  Sanders’ college plan consisted of six main components.

More on education:

  1. Free higher education for all US residents

After like fashion of many foreign diplomats and U.S. forerunners, most notably ex Georgia governor Zel Miller, Sanders wanted to guarantee free tuition at all public colleges and universities in America.  This sounds ridiculous, but apparently the idea came from the fact that the University of California did not charge residents tuition until the 1970s and NYC University was free for many decades.

2. Stop profiting on student loans

Sanders vigorously objected to the U.S. federal government’s economic practice of profiting from student loan programs by more than $110 billion.  He proposed redirecting those funds into significantly lowering student loan interest.

3. Lower standardized interest rates

Sanders also wanted to reset standard interest rate formulas back to 2006 levels and thereby slash undergrad federal student loan interest rates from 4.29% to 2.37%.

4. Allow students to refinance loans to current rates

He reportedly compared student loan rates to auto loan rates and wanted to allow students to refinance at the lower present interest levels.

5. Expand need-based aid programs

Sanders’ Free College Plan would have required public institutions to meet 100% of low-income students’ financial need and expand the federal work-study program by over triple its current volume to let students build skills and enhance career opportunities.

6. Tax Wall Street heavily

Sanders proposed taxing Wall Street $75 billion per year that would be paid by a fractional percentage tax levied on traders.  It’s unclear if this would be enough money to make tuition free at public colleges and universities, but Sanders believed it would be during his 2016 campaign.


While Sanders’ proposals created many impassioned voters, critics claim three main problems with his free college plan.

  1. Free college doesn’t help students in need

Opponents claim that the students that need free college would not benefit much. A Pellins Institute report found that over 80% of students from the highest-income families have college degrees by age 24, as opposed to just 8% of those from families within the lowest income bracket in the U.S.  Those statistics show that poor students would not benefit much from free college tuition because they are not the ones that go to college.  The students of wealthy families would all benefit greatly from having to pay no tuition at college as most of them attend an institution of higher education.

2. College-level federal aid comes too late

Postsecondary education is vital to opening up additional job opportunities, but just because students gain admission and have prepaid tuition does not guarantee they will be able to earn a college degree.  Indeed, those with the greatest need for full-tuition grants are least able to succeed in advanced college-level courses, as evidenced by direct links between low income and high attrition levels.  Students from disadvantaged origins face higher obstacles to attaining higher education.  Social isolation and financial obligation that demand working during school pose a dilemma of hardship that can mean victims remain trapped in those very same circumstances.  Even the ones who do graduate often end up jobless or underemployed because they opted for low-demand but easier disciplinary majors by college administrators.  Thus, effective intervention must begin early on to be effective.

3. There is no such thing as free tuition

An obvious fact that remains constant is that there is no such thing as a free education.  The fact is that everything in life has a cost to be paid in full either sooner or later.  Any doubt about this reality can be easily divested with a brief history lesson based on actual events.

In states with need-based scholarships and tuition caps fixed by legislators, college administrators raise fees or add-on surcharges that scholarship funds don’t cover.  In most sister states where educational institutions set tuition rates by lottery funds, college expenses rose as scholarship lottery revenue levels fell.  Consequently, the latter jurisdictions’ legislatures cut scholarship costs by limiting the total number of fundable semesters, reduced maximum award levels, or increased the minimum GPAs required to maintain eligibility.

In Sanders’ plan the free tuition was supposed to be paid by taxing Wall Street traders $75 billion a year.  What economic impact would that tax have on the economy?


At the end of the day, it is difficult to see how it would ever be possible to offer everyone in the United States a free college education.  The idea may be extremely popular with college students that have massive student loans, but ultimately shouldn’t they be the ones that are responsible for paying for their pricey college education?