Bernie Sanders' Plan for Free College Could End Racial Disparities in Higher Ed

The senator from Vermont's idea could ensure that the nation's increasingly diverse workforce can compete in a 21st-century economy.

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks about college tuitions during a May 19 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

May 19, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont socialist and 2016 presidential candidate, has one-upped the White House with a plan that should make college students—and their tuition-paying parents—stand up and cheer. If his long-shot plan becomes reality, it could help the U.S. compete in the global economy and lay the first cornerstone to bridge the wealth divide between whites and African Americans.

Sanders on Tuesday introduced the College for All Act, a bill that would eliminate tuition at public four-year colleges and universities. He’d pay part of the $750 billion, 10-year price tag with a new tax on Wall Street, siphoning off a small percentage of profits made through stock, bond, and financial derivative trades.

“It is a national disgrace that hundreds of thousands of young Americans today do not go to college, not because they are unqualified, but because they cannot afford it,” Sanders, who is running against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, said in a statement introducing the bill. Other countries, such as Sweden, Denmark, and Germany, offer free tuition, he said, and the U.S. must take a bold step to avoid falling further behind those nations in developing a 21st-century workforce.

“We have got to make sure that every qualified American in this country who wants to go to college can go to college—regardless of income,” he said.

The College for All Act takes President Obama’s plan to eliminate community college tuition a step further and supersedes an earlier Sanders proposal to cut tuition for college freshmen and sophomores.

Sanders’ plan, however, is likely to be a tough sell in a Congress that’s more interested in cutting taxes and spending than in asking corporate titans to kick in $300 billion a year for free national tuition. Skeptics also point out that college includes more than just tuition; students likely would have to take out loans to pay for room and board, and textbooks aren’t cheap either.

“The Sanders plan is a marker—it is goal setting,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “Like the movement for free public high school before it, this process must begin by introducing the idea before it proceeds to pragmatic implementation steps.”

Along with creating a workforce that can compete with China’s or South Korea’s, free four-year college tuition could also give African Americans a boost up the income-inequality ladder, Goldrick-Rab says. She points to a report, The Color of Debt: Implications of Federal Loan Program Reforms on Black Students and Historically Black Colleges and Universities, that she produced with her team at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

There’s a “substantial racial disparity” between black and white families when it comes time to pay for college, according to the report. College-bound African American students are more likely than whites to borrow money and are likely to leave college with far more student debt.

“Research indicates that family wealth has powerful impacts on college opportunities, exhibiting effects even stronger than those played by family income,” according to the study. “Moreover, racial disparities in wealth are large, growing, and unlikely to disappear anytime soon. Black students—whose families disproportionately do not own homes or retirement accounts and who cannot rely on intergenerational transfers for support”—are probably going to start a postcollege career further behind than their white counterparts.

Furthermore, studies show African American college grads don’t get the same entry-level career opportunities as whites, even if they graduated from an elite school. When they do, black grads typically make less money.

Set aside its limited prospect for becoming law, and it becomes apparent how Sanders’ plan can help level the playing field between black and white college graduates and boost the number of U.S. college grads entering the workforce.

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“No, it won’t get done right now—but whether it is ‘realistic’ today is irrelevant,” Goldrick-Rab says. “This is a plan about whether the nation needs to go if it hopes to survive.”

Sanders noted in his statement that the proposal has a back-to-the-future element: a generation ago, public colleges like the University of California system offered free tuition, and in 1965 it cost less than $300 a semester to attend a quality school like City University of New York.

But for the 2015–2016 school year, one semester at CUNY will cost $3,165 in tuition and fees, and attending a UC school will set an in-state student back $33,092. Higher education costs have spiraled so high that one of the Golden State’s crown jewels of higher education, the private Stanford University, recently announced it would waive the parental contribution to tuition—$45,729 for the 2015–2016 school year for students whose families make less than $125,000 a year. Of course, those families might still have to cough up funds to cover the $14,100 for room and board.

As for whether public universities can become free again, the next step, Goldrick-Rab says, is to put ideas like Sanders’ on the agenda and start a national conversation.

“It can take root, but that requires first stimulating broad public discussion and debate, likely over a decade,” Goldrick-Rab says.