We Must Make Public Colleges and Universities Tuition Free

Americans face almost $1.5 trillion in debt in the name of higher education.

By Bernie Sanders
This piece originally appeared in VICE Impact

This is an opinion piece by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont.

Our nation needs the best-educated workforce in the world to succeed in the ever more competitive global economy. Sadly, we are moving further and further away from that goal. As recently as 1995, the United States led the world in college graduation rates, but today we have fallen to 11th place. We are now behind such countries as Japan, South Korea, Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, and Switzerland. Eleventh place is not the place for a great nation like the United States.

Why is this so important? Because fifty years ago, if you had a high school degree, odds were that you could get a decent-job and make it into the middle class. But that is no longer the case. While not all middle-class jobs in today’s economy require post-secondary education, an increasing number do. By 2020, two-thirds of all jobs in the United States will require some education beyond high school.

And these jobs tend to pay better, too. Nationally, a worker with an associate’s degree will earn about $360,000 more over their career than a worker with a high school diploma. And a worker with a bachelor’s degree will earn almost $1 million more.

If it makes sense to get a college degree, why aren’t more high school students enrolling in and graduating from college? The main reason is because the ever-rising cost of higher education puts college out of reach for many families, or requires students to take on a mountain of debt.

It’s time to change that dynamic. It’s time to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for the working families of our country. It is time for every child to understand that if they study hard and takes their school work seriously they will be able to get a higher education, regardless of their family’s income. It’s time to reduce the outrageous burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates.

Today, our system of higher education is in a state of crisis. As tuition and fees steadily rise and as states cut funding for colleges and universities year after year, American families are finding it increasingly difficult to afford college. Every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people can’t get a higher education because it is simply too expensive. Equally disgraceful, millions of college graduates have had to take on life-long debt for the “crime” of getting the education they need.

Some 44 million Americans already owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loans, and the vast majority of current college students will graduate deeply in debt. For most graduates, this debt will take many years to repay, which not only impacts their career choices, but also their ability to get married, have kids, or buy a home.

In the richest country in the history of the world, everyone who has the desire and the ability should be able to get a college education regardless of their background and ability to pay. That’s why I introduced the College for All Act, to make public colleges and universities in America tuition-free for families earning $125,000 per year or less—which covers 86 percent of our population.

This is not a radical idea. Many other nations around the world invest in an educated workforce that isn’t burdened with enormous student debt. In Germany, Finland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden public colleges and universities are free. In Germany, public colleges are free not only for Germans, but also for international students.

It wasn’t that long ago that our own government understood the value of investing in higher education. In 1944, Congress passed the GI Bill, which provided a free college education to millions of World War II veterans. This was one of the most successful pieces of legislation in modern history, laying the groundwork for the extraordinary post-war economic boom and an unprecedented expansion of the middle class.

But it was not just the federal government that acted. In 1965, average tuition at a four-year state public university was just $256, and many excellent colleges—such as the City University of New York — did not charge any tuition at all. The University of California system, considered by many to be the crown jewel of public higher education in this country, did not charge tuition until the 1980s.

The good news is that governors, state legislators, and local officials around the country now understand the crisis and are acting. This year, the City College of San Francisco began offering tuition-free college, and its enrollment for residents is up by 51 percent compared to last year. In New York, tens of thousands will go to the city’s public colleges and universities this year without paying tuition. Similar programs have popped up in Tennessee, Oregon, Detroit and Chicago.

We are making progress on this issue, but we still have a long way to go. Making America great is not spending tens of billions more on weapons systems or providing trillions in tax breaks for the very rich. Rather, it is having a well-educated population that can compete in the global economy, and making it possible that every American, regardless of income, has the opportunity to get the education they need to thrive.

This piece originally appeared in VICE Impact