Students, faculty discuss pros, cons of free college education


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Photo by SCOTT MORGAN |

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks during the 2015 Jefferson-Jackson Dinner with fellow candidates Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley in Des Moines, Iowa, October 24, 2015. REUTERS/Scott Morgan


For students and parents, free college tuition sounds like a dream come true, but Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders' “College for All Act," an act to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public institutions, has received mixed reviews.

Sanders calls college tuition a “national disgrace” and wants to “revolutionize” higher education, according to The Washington Post.

Sanders wants to enable Americans who study hard in school to go to college regardless of how much money their parents make and without going deeply into debt, according to sanders.senate.gov. He plans to stop the federal government from making a profit off of students trying to gain an education.

He justifies the plan by citing countries in Europe who have similar programs to Sanders' plan, and it has been previously done in the U.S., according to his website.

Sanders proposes free in-state tuition by issuing a new federal tax on financial transactions, including stock, bond and derivative trades, according to the Washington Post.

This legislation would provide $47 billion per year to states in order to eliminate undergraduate tuition, according to sanders.senate.gov. Sanders plans for the federal government to cover 67 percent of the cost of tuition and for the states to cover the remaining 33 percent.

To qualify for federal funding, Sanders said states must meet certain standards in order to protect students, ensure quality and reduce ballooning costs.

The institutions will be able to use funding on their higher education systems, academic instruction and need-based financial aid. They would be able to increase academic opportunities for students, hire new faculty and provide professional development opportunities for professors. The Act will also ensure states decrease their dependence on low-paid adjunct faculty.

The main objectives are to lower student loan interest, enable loan refinancing, expand opportunities for work-study, simplify the student aid application process and impose taxes on Wall Street.

Sanders' goal is not only to help eliminate tuition but also make the U.S. richer and more competitive in the global economy, create more jobs and rebuild the middle class, according to sanders.senate.gov.

“I think the idea of free tuition is extremely realistic,” said Stephen Bronner, a professor in the Department of Political Science. “Other countries with far better education systems have it.”

It is unclear how expensive this plan would be, in regard to taxes, he said. But even with a tax increase, the benefits are worth it for poor and working class families.

Bronner said the government has money for everything else, except when poor and working class people need a program. The same argument has been brought up with every program in the past that has tried to help the poor and working class.

Affordable health care has already saved people money, and the same thing will happen with free tuition, he said.

“If there’s a better idea of how to expand education to the populous and to cheapen the cost of a college degree, then I would like to know what that is," Bronner said.

Some are skeptical of the "College for All Act," calling it unrealistic or wanting a more targeted approach to the issue.

“I think it's really important for society to be educated. It's really important going forward,” said Thomas Prusa, a professor in the Department of Economics. “But the policy could never come true. Whether it is good or bad, the plan has no chance.”

He said the Act is more of a political argument for Sanders, proving he is passionate about the common person. Still, the proposal is unrealistic.

Prusa said tuition is increasing at Rutgers and universities nationwide, which is the root of the problem. Universities are dealing with a dramatic long-term decrease in state aid. State legislatures are making a decision to use less and less tax support. This leaves the burden on students.

“Higher education is no longer a priority for state legislatures. But, if students go out and vote they can change the outcome,” he said.

The plan also comes with economic problems, Prusa said. The policy will be very expensive and the only way the change could work is if there is an increase of flow of funds from the state.

“Rather than free tuition, a much more aggressive financial aid to provide more support for low-income students should be implemented,” he said. “Providing subsidies for the students who need it most is more important.”

Further criticism of the Act includes the possibility that a more accessible education would mean a less excellent one, said Charles Lane in The Washington Post.

“A financial stake encourages students to study hard. It encourages families to monitor their kids’ schools and hold them accountable. By contrast, 'free' tuition, regardless of need, may breed entitlement, indifference or both. If there’s anything young people don’t need, it’s that," Lane said.

If tuition was eliminated, Sanders' plan would have to rely on aggressive administrative control, in fear of students flooding the system and driving up costs. This would require more federal subsidies, Lane said.

Lane also criticized Sanders' Act, a plan intended to help the poor and middle class afford college, for giving free tuition to upper income people, who can easily afford it.

Free public institutions would also limit choices for students, said Kevin James on USnews.com.

“Now we have a decentralized system where students can take much of their student aid with them to the institution of their choosing. This enables a wide variety of organizations — public and private — to offer a range of different educational programs,” he said.

But free public institutions would limit choice as do many private institutions who are now trying to compete with a free option. These private institutions would likely struggle to survive.

It would also reduce pressure on free colleges to serve students effectively, he said. Institutions would have more incentive to meet enrollment goals and pass students rather than to help guarantee they are successful in the future.

He said providing aid directly to the institutions would enable the government to exert more direct control over how they function, for example reducing their reliance on adjunct professors.

“But are such top-down controls really likely to create the dynamic and innovative system that we need? By trying to dictate innovation from Washington, such a proposal is more likely to create a system that is rigid, bureaucratic and unresponsive to the changing needs of students and the economy over time,” James said.

Rutgers University prides itself on diversity and offering exceptional education at an affordable price. More than 75 percent of students receive financial aid and roughly one third of undergraduates are first-generation college students, according to Rutgers website.

Many students work up to three jobs to pay their tuition and are still left with piles of debt, said Danielle Mann, a School of Arts and Sciences junior. 

Mann pays her own college tuition with no help from her parents.

She said it is going to be really difficult graduation with a massive amount of student debt and loans.

“If I could go into the workforce without all that debt, it would change my life,” she said.


Noa Halff

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