Should College Be Free, or Will That Make Us Worthless Slackers?

Bernie Sanders has been on the hustings, pushing his bill, the "College for All Act". This bill is part of his vast appeal to the debt-burdened middle and working classes.

This bill would make all public four-year completely tuition-free.

Bernie Sanders gives a very consistent answer defending his position on the need for free college: first, he says, college costs are causing young people to go into so much debt that the rest of their lives are just about servicing this debt; second, he notes that today, a college degree is as essential for success as a high school diploma was a generation ago. Finally, he points out that America needs a highly educated workforce in order to be competitive in the global economy.
Those people opposed to this bill, argue that no one is entitled to free money. As Tomi Lahren, the host of TheBlaze states:

Don't listen to Bernie, or Hillary tell [sic] you free things are your incentive to apply for college... Your incentive doesn't come from the government; it comes from your brain, your heart, your family, and your creator... Don't distribute my wealth; distribute my work ethic.

The American mythology of upwardly mobility stands against Bernie, as it seems to demand that nothing should be handed to you or to anyone for free. Even Hillary Clinton argues against his bill, making the case that we should only be paying for the college costs of students who are unable to afford it. But she exaggerates who that might be: she says, "I'm not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump's kids." But Sanders' bill would not just ease the burden on a handful of oligarchs' kids - broad millions of poor and middle-class kids struggle with college costs and the burden of student loan debt as well.

Is Bernie Sanders in fact, with this bill, presenting America with a socialist nightmare of entitlement, and seeking to empower young hippies nationwide to ask for free stuff, thus destroying the moral backbone of the nation?

Those opposing this legislation forget that college students are already familiar with the idea of "free" - because they are continually being exploited for free. You never have to explain the word "free" to a college student. College students are expected to produce free labor of all kinds, to corporations as well as nonprofits, under the euphemistic category of "internship." College application fees are about seventy dollars each - and a friend of mine, Shane Treznoski, was told by a college to which he applied that, well, they would just keep his fee even though they did not have time to look at his application this year, even though he had applied within their deadline. Jobs on campus reserved for students often require high-level skills like computing or support staff skills, but are paid at minimum wage.

Yet in spite of all of this exploitation of college students, every time someone like Bernie Sanders suggests that students would be able to focus on their studies more effectively if some of this financial burden were alleviated, a battalion of "real" adults such as Mrs. Clinton and many of the Republicans opposing this bill, pull "no such thing as a free lunch" speeches out of their back pockets.

If four-year public colleges in America were really tuition-free, it would not in fact do away with the hard work equals achievement formula of the American Dream. Rather it would just take away already unjust burdens on some students and not on others, depending on how rich or poor they were born, that currently simply exacerbates income inequality and determines success or failure unfairly.

Here is what I mean:

First of all, you are more likely to go to college if you were born rich. John Hopkins University researchers reported that

Of the children from low-income families, only 4 percent had a college degree at age 28, compared to 45 percent of the children from higher-income backgrounds.

This explains, of course, why rich students are more likely to earn a degree, but it does not explain why poor people who earn degrees are less likely to succeed.

Now, even when students from poorer backgrounds manage to get college degrees, they stay poorer than their rich peers. Matt O'Brien from the Washington Post reports that:

... rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom -- 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne'er-do-wells.

What is making wealthy children so much more fortunate than their classmates, from poor and even middle-class backgrounds, who have also graduated? The key factor is whether their parents could pay for college without burdening them with debt.

College obviously costs a lot of money. In fact, it's now twice as expensive to attend a four-year university now than it was in the 1980s, even accounting for inflation.

Ironically, the financial stress of college debt undermines poorer students' success levels - in part due to the stress the debt causes as their professional lives unfold. Laura Choi of the Federal Reserve Bank reports that economic stress was extremely harmful to individuals' physical and mental health and that this emotional burden resulted in more "workplace absenteeism, diminished workplace performance, and depression." These data show that the financial stresses from college debt have at least some effect on holding poorer college-educated Americans back once they are in the work place, compared to their debt-free college grad peers. If we can alleviate the financial burden required for many low-income individuals to receive an education, then we can help set up individuals for future success simply by making their lives a little easier.

College education should not just be a great opportunity for some fortunate people; rather, I argue, given all of the ways in which it helps to level out unjust inequalities, free public college should become a constitutional right.

The founders asserted that everyone had the right to pursue "life liberty" and "happiness." Surely lifting grossly unjust burdens of debt that selectively dog some students for life is part of this pursuit of "happiness" that our Founders would have supported if they could only have foreseen it.

Anyone who wants to put in the hard work it takes to earn a college degree absolutely deserves to do that, and by alleviating the financial burden of college we are providing an essential right that can make lives easier, and pave the road for all young American to have an equal shot at the American Dream.