The Hidden Cost of Free Education

Library by AnveshPandra is licensed under CC BY-2.0 (via flickr)

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has brought free higher education for all Americans back into the political debate mix, voicing concerns of overwhelming student debt, decreasing government contribution to state education, and growing rates of poverty and unemployment.

The presidential candidate has vocalized his support for making higher education more affordable for American families for the entirety of his political career. His presidential campaign has helped bring into the public discussion the notion of tuition-free higher education. In 2015, Sanders introduced the College for All Act, which calls to “eliminate undergraduate tuition at 4-year public colleges and universities,” per the senator’s website.  

Sanders claims that eliminating the cost of tuition at public universities is a crucial step towards becoming competitive globally: “We live in a highly competitive global economy and, if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated work force in the world. That will not happen if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and if millions more leave school deeply in debt.” He argues that upcoming generations cannot live and work sustainably under the burden of student debt, nor without a college degree.

Many argue that while tuition-free high education sounds idyllic, it is actually the less sustainable option. Removing the cost of pursuing a bachelors’ degree provides a very compelling argument for individuals who had not previously considered college to do so. While this seems positive, there is concern that an influx in the number of potential employee candidates with college degrees will create an imbalance in labor distribution in our workforce. Some economic analysts worry that the number of tradesmen will decrease, since trade school would not be free under the act (since it is a two year program), and because it is the common assumption that college graduates make more money. This is even more concerning upon examining a 2013 Forbes skilled-trade statistics report, which states that 71.6% of skilled-trade workers in the United States of America are over 45 years old.

This is a difficult situation with no good option. Should public colleges and universities become tuition-free, enabling all individuals to pursue higher education and all that comes with it – even at the cost of losing skilled laborers? Or should the government act as a guardian and choose not to take action, limiting the number of college graduates while ensuring that each community has the workmen available for essential tasks? While the pursuit of higher education for all is a noble goal, is it worth transitioning the labor force into an unsustainable system?