By Sarah Doyle

As we near the elections of 2020, we are hearing a lot of talk about free higher education–are Bernie Sander’s ideas really that radical? In the United States, higher education costs can range from $17,580 for a Public two-year institution, to $50,900 for a private four-year college. Staggering, right? 

Higher education is getting harder and harder to afford for the new generations, and more and more people are going into debt with students owing around 1.5 trillion dollars in student loans as of 2018. Prices of private colleges are nearly 3x what they were in the late 1970s, and rising even faster in recent years. College is going to become a thing of the past once people aren’t able to afford it if this trend continues. How can we combat this problem and possibly lower the tuition costs? How have other countries in Europe established a system for students to have free higher education?

Europe offers free higher education, but just how that free education is achieved is an entirely different story. Some may even argue that no education in a public or private institution is actually free given that someone–either the government, the taxpayer, or the student is paying. Business Insider states that “taxpayers absorb [the] cost” in places like Germany instead of having the students pay themselves. 

Another major factor contributing to the lower cost of tuition in Europe is the fact that there are lower applicants, and acceptance rates. This means that the government doesn’t have to pay for as many students to obtain the education, and by default, there is less money spent. In order to give a more concise idea of what the selection process for education is like, I’m going to focus primarily on Germany as a gauge for the whole of Europe.

In the United States, 66 percent of high school graduates go on to attend a college or university, but only one-third of the graduates in Germany attend college. This is because there are only a limited number of spots for students, and only so many of them can be filled. The system that they choose to use is called the weeding system–the students are tracked through the first four years of their education by the same teacher so that they can determine whether, by their midterm reports, the students should be college or trade school-bound. The ways in which they weed out what students are to be admitted into college is a process in and of itself–a highly controversial process. 

Parents have a strong desire for their children to be university-bound, and this process determines from an early age whether that will be possible or not. It’s been argued by educators such as Principal Liz Vincenz from an elementary school in Essen, Germany that “[a]ny form of tracking is a form of discrimination. . . they are feeling that they are not really wanted.” This is where the moral dilemma comes into the classroom and the true cost of free higher education. 

Contrarily, the people who would normally “fall through the cracks” of the high school education system at an early age and end up dropping out, are sent on the path that will help them make money from a less academically-inclined standpoint, and will save the government funds that will be used for higher-education for those who will yield the country’s more educated population. It saves the students the pain of not being happy in their struggles in school and paves the way for those who are more gifted from an academic standpoint rather than the more trade-oriented one. 

Recently, Bernie Sanders who is running for Presidency in the 2020 election, proposed that the United States should be looking into how one can achieve free higher education for Americans in need of funding. The problem with American higher education is not that the desire isn’t there for free tuition, it is that there is a high price at which it would come–70 billion dollars.

When asked if he felt free college would make higher education more efficient, more innovative, and higher quality, Sanders replied that regardless of socioeconomic status he wants all the children of America to one day hear that “if they study hard and take their schoolwork seriously, they will be able to get a higher education, regardless of their family’s income”. His second plan of action for the United States is to lower student debt in this country. Accruing student debt is reaching upwards of 1.4 billion as of 2017. He says that he will be able to pay for it by “imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation”, and it will raise all the money that we need.

If there is to be free education for public institutions, the questions also arise whether students would take school seriously if it was not something they had to pay for. However, Sanders is also quoted saying that more jobs require advanced education, so if even a bachelor’s degree is obtained, then students have a higher likelihood of being hired and becoming what would be considered “successful”. The true test is whether America wants this to be what the society offers for people and the unpredictable outcomes that could and would result from granting those who can’t afford it and are accepted free tuition.

The fact that what a high school diploma meant back in the 1960s, is equivalent to what a college degree means today says a lot about who will make it in our society and how seriously we should consider a free education system, not similar to Germany with a track system, but as a tuition-free system for those who can get in and want to obtain a higher education. With this plan income levels and socio-economic status not dictate or unswervingly determine how successful or how educated people are or ever will be.