Those from “far-right” to “center-left” give a spectrum of answers as to why tuition-free public colleges, advocated most prominently by Bernie Sanders, are delusional, impractical or propaganda pieces intended for young voters who would like to have everything handed to them and so on. In one uninspired take, the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby evokes the timeless platitudes of fiscal conservatism. He starts with his first pillar of economic wisdom, “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” followed by, “making any good or service free encourages people to waste it … Enact legislation that lets anyone go to college on the taxpayers’ dime, and we’ll see more unmotivated college students whose time would be far better spent elsewhere.” Well, to Jeff I say, NYU students who take on six-figure loans must become extra motivated, not extra scared.
In the New York Times, Andrew Kelley, representing the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute, blames college administrators and prospective students, asserting that “an influx of federal money may lead profligate administrators to spend even more. Enrollments will also increase, further multiplying the cost of free college.” For an organization as averse to Wall Street regulation as the AEI, the criticism of the so-called profligacy of educators falls flat. And yes — enrollments will increase. That is a benefit of making college more accessible.
I quote newspaper writers instead of politicians because they are at least participating in this discussion. Elected officials have largely refused to comment on proposals from Sanders and the like, devoting their time instead toward gutting education, not strengthening it. The Senate tax bill would treat tuition waivers received by around 150,000 graduate students as taxable income in order to offset a small portion of cuts that primarily benefit corporations and upper class Americans, dramatically increasing costs for students who work. For example, a doctoral student at Yale University who receives a $41,000 tuition waiver would see their tax bill nearly triple — from $3,596 to $10,271. Since lower-income students are already faced with exorbitant tuition costs, such a tax hike would cause many to give up their higher-education aspirations.
Yet the Republican Party’s aversion to education should come as no surprise. In fact, it is in its best interest to discourage Americans from going to college. Even though the vast majority of Republican politicians hold college degrees, their strongest supporters are undereducated whites. According to a CNN exit poll, 66 percent of white people without a college education voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, while only 48 percent with a degree did.
Tuition-free college will continue to be treated as millennial fantasy until unapologetically left-wing Democrats are elected. But such candidates will likely not win unless Americans are better educated, and Republicans will do much to prevent this. They pursue a politically expedient cycle of ignorance, and students must be wary.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
A version of this appeared in the Monday, Nov. 27 print edition. Email [email protected]