Bernie Sanders Wants Free College for Everyone, But is it a Realistic Concept?

Reggie Fullwood

by Reggie Fullwood

“Education is a precondition to survival in America today,” said Marian Wright Edelman.

Certainly, that belief was rooted at the foundation of President Obama’s announcement last year that he believes that community college should be free to all Americans.

The president’s plan was called “America’s College Promise.” The initiative would cover students’ tuition for qualifying community college programs, for students maintaining a 2.5 GPA.

Education is always a major campaign topic and this presidential cycle is no different. However, one candidate has taken Obama’s concept of free community college even further. Senator Bernie Sanders is proposing that not only should college classes be free, but also students should not have to be burdened with any debt.
His campaign website states, “As President, Bernie Sanders will fight to make sure that every American who studies hard in school can go to college regardless of how much money their parents make and without going deeply into debt.”

Let’s just say Sanders was able to win the Democratic nomination as a major underdog and then won the presidency – would Republicans support the President’s plan?
Remember, free college is not really an original concept. Obama’s community college plan is modeled after the Tennessee Promise, which is a state funded free community college program that started last year. The plan is being paid for with Tennessee Lottery proceeds.

Of course, Tennessee has a Republican Governor and GOP led legislature that supported the plan.

And to state the obvious, Washington DC is a totally different monster, but at least the Sanders can tout the fact that a GOP governor and state legislature from a very conservative state supports the initiative. Again, DC is a different beast and Republicans have been are reluctant to give any Democratic President any policy victories.

While some dismiss Sander’s plan as lubricous, he says that it’s not such a radical concept. “Last year, Germany eliminated tuition because they believed that charging students $1,300 per year was discouraging Germans from going to college,” stated his website.

The policy plan went on to say, “Next year, Chile will do the same. Finland, Norway, Sweden and many other countries around the world also offer free college to all of their citizens. If other countries can take this action, so can the United States of America.”

One key criticism is the capacity issue – some “experts” are already saying that the over 1,500 public universities and community colleges around the nation don’t have the capacity or resources to properly educate such a large influx of students.

So there’s the Republican issue, capacity concerns and then there is the historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) issue.

On the surface I think President Obama and Sanders are right on point and the concept of free college and community college is a bold initiative that we all should support, but the for blacks there is a two ton elephant in the room.

Black colleges and religious institutions have been a strong foundation in the African American community. Because as James Baldwin once said, “A child cannot be taught by someone who despises him.”

In fact, schools like Edward Waters College (EWC) were formed by churches specifically for the education of blacks after slavery because white colleges refused to accept them.

So it is obvious that HBCUs have played a critical role in this country since they were established in the face of Jim Crow, segregation and the systematic degradation of schools in minority communities.

So how would a free public college system effect black schools?

Over the past several years many HBCUs have struggled financially and many have faced challenges in building their enrollment up. We know that for minority students, the cost associated with going to college is often the number one barrier.

So if public colleges are free some students will make their school decision based on the dollars and cents of the issue.
This could devastate many HBCUs and even other small private colleges.

Johnny Taylor, president and CEO of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, recently said, “If you can go to community college for free, that’s where you are going the first two years.’ So, what you have done is cut in half the revenue for private HBCUs. Private HBCUs are going to feel this in a way you can’t even imagine.”
The HBCU dilemma could be a prime example of the law of unintended consequences.

Sanders ideas are radical and that’s the role he’s playing in this race for the White House. While I like Obama’s plan for free community college, the Sanders plan seems to be more political maneuvering than practical policy.

Signing off from the University of North Florida,
Reggie Fullwood

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