On November 11, Republican Presidential candidate Ben Carson took a swipe at Senator Bernie Sanders and his followers during a speech at Liberty University.
"If they don't really understand the financial situation of the country and somebody comes along and says, 'free college for everybody,' they'll say, 'oh, what a wonderful person,'" the retired neurosurgeon said. "They have no idea that all you are about is hastening the destruction of the nation."
Ben Carson's outlandish argument against proposals for free college tuition, such as a bill introduced in May 2015 by Senator Bernie Sanders which would provide $70 billion in college subsidies paid through taxes on Wall Street, is indicative of the tactics his campaign employs to generate a supporter base off of the fears from people, members of the middle class and upper class, that if they support progressive reforms or the expansion of social benefit programs, it will be at their expense. The pejorative term, 'hand-out' is frequently used to dismiss such proposals.
Carson failed to get into the specifics of how and what would be so destructive about free college tuition, because it wouldn't be, based on Senator Sanders proposal. He also failed to acknowledge there were any problems in higher education in terms of student debt and affordability.
The problem with the rising costs of college tuition aren't that it makes higher education unattainable, it's that the loans and debt a student must take on in order to afford a college education in conjunction with the job prospects a college degree provides to a student makes a college education less of an incentive. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found 57 percent of Americans don't believe college education is worth the monetary value, and 75 percent deemed it as too expensive for most Americans afford. These sentiments reflect the 7 million student loan borrowers in 2015 who are currently in default, correlating to 17 percent of all borrowers of federal student loans in delinquency. These numbers are rising, and with it the insurmountable debt one must invoke in order to have a chance to aspire to be a member of the middle class. The average cost of tuition for a private non-profit in the 2015-16 school year is nearly $33,000 a year; public tuition at over $9,000. With 65 percent of all job openings through 2020 projected to require some form of higher education, according to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, making college education more affordable would insure the U.S. has a highly educated workforce necessary to compete in global markets and meet the demand of our labor market. Currently, based on U.S. Census data from 2014, only 38 percent of Americans have at least an Associate's Degree.
"Proposals for free community college tuition have come from Republicans and Democrats at the local, state, and federal levels. Whatever their chances of enactment, these proposals demonstrate just how central community colleges are to strategies for growing the economy and expanding individual opportunity," wrote Joshua Bryner, Executive Director of the Aspen Institute in their 2015 College Excellence Program prize publication. "Community college students are often the first in their families to attend college, those who most rely on a college education to avoid poverty and low-wage work. Whether or not tuition is eliminated, much more work is needed to help them succeed."
Free tuition is not a cure all solution to solve all of higher education's dilemmas, but in an op-ed penned by Senator Sanders in the Washington Post on October 22, the Democratic Presidential Candidate articulated the urgent crisis in higher education he intends to solve by broadening access and affordability to it. Increasingly, a college degree is becoming, in value, what a high school degree was worth several decades ago. Senator Sanders explained public schooling from kindergarten to 12th grade was not inherently decreed, but occurred as a result of progressive reforms, and it is time to transition that universal public access to higher education as well.
"Today, it would take a minimum wage worker an entire year to earn enough to cover the annual in-state tuition at a public university. And that's why so many bright young people don't go to college, don't finish or graduate deeply in debt," wrote Senator Sanders. "With $1.3 trillion in student loans, Americans are carrying more student debt than credit card or auto-loan debt. That's a tragedy for our young people and for our nation."
The term 'free' turns many people off of the proposal, but denigrating Senator Sanders solution to increasing college costs and student debt is treating a college education as though it were merely a consumer good susceptible to the market in which those who can afford the best quality, do so, and those who can't opt for cheap alternatives. This mode of thinking exacerbates income inequality and diminishes opportunities for lower income individuals to raise their economic status.Higher education is a tool to achieve the American dream, but rising costs are impeding on the ability for many Americans to attain that dream, making the pathway to the middle class much more difficult to traverse. Those who are fortunate to be born under wealthy circumstances already have plenty of advantages throughout life compared to those who don't. Higher education should not be an additional privilege afforded to the upper classes, it should be a right for every American with the ability and desire to go to college.