Opinion / Politics

Biden’s Free-College Plan Is a Solution in Search of a Problem

BidenFormer vice president Joe Biden made a stunning announcement last month: In a major leftward move, he would back Senator Bernie Sanders’s original free-college plan for families earning up to $125,000 a year.

News of this radical policy shift was lost amid coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now there is a risk that it will escape the scrutiny it deserves.

There are at least two broad arguments against the Biden free-college plan. First, the problem it seeks to solve — unaffordable tuition at public universities — is extremely overstated. Free-college supporters argue that tuition at these public institutions — the only colleges covered by Biden’s plan — has risen to unaffordable levels, especially for students from low- and middle-income families. But this claim is usually based on published “sticker prices” at universities rather than the net prices that students actually pay after their financial aid is applied. In other words, free-college advocates measure college affordability before factoring in existing policies meant to make college more affordable.

A 2019 opinion piece in the New York Times by a former Obama administration staffer is typical of this approach. The article makes the case for a new federal funding stream intended to help public universities tackle rising and unaffordable tuition, which is effectively how the Biden and Sanders plans would work. The author cites sticker prices published by the College Board to demonstrate how unaffordable public institutions have become. There is no mention of what students pay after financial aid is applied. In fact, the author doesn’t discuss financial aid — including the large increases that President Obama signed into law and that remain in place today — at all.

There’s a reason for that: When you factor in student aid, the tuition picture changes dramatically: The prices that students from families earning less than $125,000 per year pay to attend four-year public colleges and universities have not increased nearly enough since the mid 1990s to justify the sweeping reforms that progressives support.

The chart below shows both the sticker and net prices for these students in inflation-adjusted terms from the 1995–96 academic year through the 2015–16 academic year, based on the available data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Post secondary Student Aid Study. These data are from administrative records that reflect all aid that students actually received, not just what they were eligible to receive. In the 1995–96 academic year, students paid about $2,000 (in 2015 dollars) on average to attend an in-state public university after their student aid was applied. By the 2015–16 academic year, that number had risen just $400, to $2,400.

To be sure, the chart shows that sticker prices have increased rapidly at public universities. But, contra the claims of free-college advocates, students and families have not borne those increases, because financial aid from states, the federal government, and colleges themselves has increased nearly as much as sticker prices on a per-student basis. This suggests that the existing financial-aid structure made up of targeted grants, tuition discounts, scholarships, and tax credits is hardly the failure that free-college supporters make it out to be. One might even conclude that it seems to be working pretty well, at least from the students’ and the universities’ perspectives. At a minimum, the substantial amount of aid available to students suggests that the radical new approach to the issue proposed by Biden and Sanders is a solution in search of a problem. And make no mistake, the Biden/Sanders plan is certainly a radical new approach.

That is where the second broad argument against the plan comes in. Biden’s plan will change incentive structures in the higher-education system in a way that could exacerbate existing inequities, while giving decisions that have historically been the purview of states and universities to Washington, D.C

At the core of the free-college plan is what progressive advocates call a new kind of “federal-state partnership” in which Washington would match state spending to fully subsidize tuition at public universities. Participation would be optional for states, and opting in would commit them to meeting a range of new federal requirements. Those requirements are the key centralizing feature of the plan, and as states and universities attempt to either game the system or tailor their new free-college plans to their own unique circumstances, the federal government is sure to impose more of them.

Funding shortages and limited access aren’t merely theoretical effects of free college; they are a standard part of the international experience with it. For example, Finland offers free public universities, but it can’t afford to offer them to all citizens. Its universities end up rejecting two-thirds of applicants each year. And when public universities — especially the elite institutions — have to ration limited seats, they raise admissions standards, denying entry to low-income students who tend to have lower test scores than their more affluent peers. That exact pattern was what ultimately convinced Australia and England to abandon their free-college policies and start charging tuition decades ago. Access to higher education actually increased as a result.

In short, the Biden free-college plan would be a boondoggle. In seeking to solve an affordability problem that isn’t nearly the problem supporters of the plan have led us to believe, it would create much bigger problems. Policymakers should instead embrace the existing, actually successful student-aid system and improve upon it, rather than scrapping it for a radical, risky, expansive new federal program.

Reprinted with Permission from - National Review by - Jason Delisle

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3 years ago

For Biden to have a chance in the upcoming election he needs Sanders support and followers to vote for him. To do this he has to embrace some of Sanders issues. Free college is one of Sanders big ones. Sanders vision of free college is not shared by most other countries who offer “free college”. First off, your grades have to meet entry level requirements. Then you have to pass a qualification test. If you qualify you will be offered a chose of studies that lead to a job needed in that country and there are a sufficient number of open positions to justify the cost of your education. The list may be short. If you don’t meet the minimum level qualifications you do something else. There are no quotas or social adjustments, you either qualify or you don’t. They don’t replace a qualified applicant with an unqualified applicant the way we often do. In the Sanders version there is no qualification, anyone who wants to go can go and do anything they want regardless of the need. There are some advantages to free college if it’s done in a responsible way. And no Virginia, there will not be a school bus to take johnny to school everyday and bring him home…..

3 years ago

Biden is so feeble, I do not believe he could understand any feasible plan to truely aid ANY college students!

3 years ago

Birds of a feather. Biden is tied on the front fender of Barney’s car. They both are Socialists and Jerks.

De Ka
3 years ago

This article is not addressing the true issue that needs to be addressed. It’s not so much the cost of tuition, it’s the cost of the financial aid cited by the author. Students today are paying market interest rates on their financial aid, not the original 2% guaranteed by the government:

Interest Rates for Direct Loans First Disbursed on or After July 1, 2019, and Before July 1, 2020

Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans



Direct Unsubsidized Loans

Graduate or Professional


Direct PLUS Loans

Parents and Graduate or Professional Students


So when you add up the costs of 4-5 years of undergraduate study and that for those that go on the higher degrees the amount of interest is more than you pay for a car, and in a majority cases for a house. The goal is to get an education that statistics show provides better job and wage opportunity. The author fails to make his case, in this area and that is why you see a push to bring down the cost of going to college or even making just the tuition costs free. There’s also the cost of books, living expenses, transportation, etc. that also has to be addressed by the student, most students don’t live with mom and dad while in school. Remember, it is the responsibility of the authors’ of these types of articles to provide the whole picture of an issue and not just the cherry picking of facts. Their goal is to reach enough readers to justify their emotional pitch. Think people and investigate these issues on your own, don’t take someone’s word just because it pushes a hot button for you emotionally.

Mom of 8
3 years ago

When we were first married, back in 1950, my husband attended college while working to support a wife and two children, who arrived during his college career. He paid his own tuition. After earning straight A’s he was awarded a scholarship in his senior year. He graduated with honors and no debt! Those who say this cannot be done in today’s world are wrong. My grandaughter will graduate this year with straight A’s and no debt. She did this by getting a job, working from 5AM to 11AM every day and living at home. IT CAN BE DONE!!! Now at age 88 I am asked to pay for young people to get questionable degrees and their “college experience”.

3 years ago

Remember that post that said that Elizabeth Warren (while complaining about the high cost of college) made $400,000 teaching one class at Harvard? Turns out that wasn’t true… Warren earned more than $400,000 for her work as a Harvard Law School professor in 2010 and 2011. Across those two years, she taught TWO classes, not one. The Politifact article also says that her reputation contributed to her value at the University.

Bob L.
3 years ago

I fail to see the NEED for everyone to go to college, many high school students don’t want to go to college, but want a job in a trade or self-employment. We used to have a lot of “trade schools” to train people in much needed blue collar fields With the big corporations bending over backwards hiring foreign workers instead of Americas, and calling upon the government to issue even more worker visas, many Americas with degrees cannot find a job in their degree field and are stuck with a large student loan debt. Some of those corporations have gone so far as to replace Americans with foreign workers, requiring the American employee to train their replacement before being “shown the door”. This has been going on since the 1990’s and I have a DVD with some interviews of Americans who were replaced in that manner.

It’s bad enough that our youth are subjected to the level of Socialist/Globalist indoctrination in public schools today from K through 12. Many of our institutions of “higher learning” are as much a finishing school of Socialism as they are of legitimate studies.

3 years ago


3 years ago

If college is free then employers will be looking for graduate degrees obtained at a premium price over today’s costs.
Unfortunately most people look at the small picture, the immediate solution instead of the whole picture.

dino deplorable
3 years ago

This person is just another nobamba impregnated democrat,no different than every other democrat,spend and tax and then spend more and tax more never paying on the debt that they owe.

Steve Towns
3 years ago

The cost of college went up when student loans became easier to get. Schools had the chance to raise tuition without any penalty.

David Campbell
3 years ago

If you want to screwup higher education even more than it is now, add more government.

3 years ago

Given that college students are taking their classes on line from their home, why have campuses at all? Is that what Biden’s solution would be? It wouldn’t cost the government much—just the professors’ salaries.

3 years ago

The answer to putting nation back to work is Testing, Testing, Testing !!! And it appears that everyone wearing masks is very important to prevent spread .

3 years ago

I am a Trump backer & like a lot of what he has done, but he is out of bounds at briefing 2-days ago. Someone explain to President Trump that US is a republic & not a kingdom. He remarked “Authority of President is total”. That is why our founding fathers have 3-branches of govt. so that one person cannot do anything that he wants to do. To Trump “Do you realize the rest of world is also watching these briefings every day” and should not be an airing of WH complaints in public.

Jesse Tiede
3 years ago

Dang! It must be nice to plan on how to spend other people’s money! I should have gone into Left Wing Politics…

Roy Kizzier
3 years ago

University tuition would skyrocket if the government paid for “free” tuition. The University of Nebraska just hired a new president and he will be paid a ridiculous amount of almost $1,000,000 per year in order to keep up with the other Big 10 schools. Next year it will probably be $1.5 million. If the government goes to “free” tuition the university presidents will probably go to over $2 million and tuition will probably double or triple. I live in Nebraska.

Sergio Olivares
3 years ago

Sleepy Joe Biden may be was sleeping when it’s comes, Bernie Sanders appear as the ghost of everything free in his dreams!

3 years ago

Stop the insane Free programs !! Nothing is Free !! If any politician has any guts they would go after the Trillions of dollars owed by defaulted students! Especially the ones that still think the government owes them a living and are still living off the government!! Trillions !! Sure would help with National debt! Or pay off Covd-19 debt !! Get some guts!!

3 years ago

Yeah right…keep paying coaches millions, professors several hundred thousand while their aides teach, taxpayers giving millions to them for liberal anti American propaganda now.
Look at some of the ridiculous courses at colleges today, absolutely USELESS!

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