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Friendly Reminder: Bernie’s $70 Billion-a-Year ‘Free College Aspect’ Is Not ‘Awesome’

MSNBC’s Jacob Soboroff was on a bus taking New Hampshire voters to the polls in Durham, when he asked first-time voter Grace, whom she was supporting. She was backing Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) due to his democratic socialist leanings, and the fact that the “free college aspect was awesome.” She added that most of her friends are going for Bernie as well.


It sounds like a nice plan, but as with many of Bernie’s policy’s–they’re half-baked. Let’s go back to Kevin James’ May of 2015 column, where he detailed the free college initiative–and how it would fail:

The idea would cost $70 billion per year, more than twice what the federal government spends on Pell grants. And much of that money would provide a free education to students whose families can already afford it.

But even more important than how much we spend and who we spend it on, we should ask ourselves what impact free public college would have on the delivery system of higher education. That is, would free college make higher education more efficient, more innovative and higher quality?


Right 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.

In contrast, free public college would limit choice as many private institutions, now trying to compete with a highly-subsidized, free public option, would likely struggle to survive. In addition to reducing options, this would significantly reduce pressure on public institutions to serve students effectively.

Many free college proponents would likely point out that by providing aid directly to institutions, the government can actually exert more direct control over how they operate. For example, Sanders' bill would require institutions to reduce 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.


… there are a remarkable number of regulatory barriers preventing new and innovative educational institutions from gaining a foothold. Thus, what occurs naturally in other industries – innovative market entrants shaking up the status quo – rarely occurs in higher education. Policymakers must work to clear out unnecessary regulatory underbrush that impedes new options.

Fundamentally, the "price" of free public college is more than the money taxpayers would spend on it. By moving us to a system based largely on public institutions managed through top-down regulation, Sanders' proposal would exacerbate the challenges above, not solve them.


Let’s not kid ourselves; education has a multitude of problems, and James adds that government needs to focus on making things cost less that deliver, instead of just throwing money at the issue–a typical move by Democrats since it’s easy to sell and explain, regardless of the economic consequences. He also wrote that we should “foster more entrepreneurship in higher education,” and force colleges to have more skin in the game, instead of just worrying about meeting enrollment quotas and graduation rates; they should be invested more in the outcome of their students. The huge part of this will come from the entrepreneurial side, which under socialism, cannot thrive.

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