Since he first announced his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has stuck to one simple promise. One that has many young people, in particular, #feelingthebern: free college.
As Sanders put it in his New Hampshire victory speech: "When we need the best-educated workforce in the world, yes, we are going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free."
There's a reason this promise has such powerful appeal. Earning some sort of postsecondary degree or certificate is more and more considered a necessity if you want to earn a middle-class living. Meanwhile, on a percentage basis, by some measures, college tuition has increased in cost more than any other good or service in the U.S. economy since 1978. It rises at two or three times the rate of inflation every single year. And student loans have grown in tandem, to a total of $1.2 trillion. There's rising concern that this debt is stopping young people from buying homes, starting families or businesses, saving for their futures and generally being launched into their lives.
As with many other elements of his platform, critics of Sanders' free-college proposal have charged that it is unrealistic and that he hasn't fully explained how to pay for it. Funding free college can be tricky because, as with other government benefits, the very act of promising to pay can drive up costs in a couple of different ways.
Andrew Kelly, a prominent critic of the idea at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, has written that capping tuition at zero "limits college spending to whatever the public is willing to invest. But it does not change the cost of college, or what institutions actually spend per student. If the past is any guide, that cost will continue to grow, and an influx of federal money may lead profligate administrators to spend even more. Enrollments will also increase, further multiplying the cost of free college."
The Short Answer
But let's assume that, somehow, it gets done. Would getting rid of tuition at public colleges and universities, by itself, really give the United States "the most educated workforce in the world"?
Probably not. Let's look around the world and find out why.
The Long Answer
The United States currently has the ninth-most-educated workforce in the world, with 45 percent of young adults having earned some form of diploma or certificate. That's according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which compiles detailed statistics on developed countries. The U.S. is above the OECD average, making modest progress over the past decade, even as tuition has risen steadily.
"The most educated workforces in the world," though, are smoking us. They are found in South Korea, where a whopping 67 percent of adults have some postsecondary education, and Japan and Canada (both at 58 percent).
Now, here's the problem with Sanders' claim that free tuition is necessary:
All three countries charge tuition at their universities, which are overwhelmingly public. The numbers are roughly on par with in-state tuition at many public universities here. In fact, Canada's recent graduates have student loan burdens similar to those of U.S. students, and they're not happy about it.
So whatever the differences in education systems, policy, culture and demographics among these three countries and the United States, it's clear, at least on the face of it, that free tuition is not required to produce "the most educated workforce in the world."
The Other Side
Now, let's look at the question a different way.
As Sanders points out on his website, Germany recently abolished college tuition, and "Finland, Norway, Sweden and many other countries around the world also offer free college to all of their citizens."
This is true. But again, there's a catch: Only one of these free-college countries does better than the United States when it comes to educational attainment.
Germany and Finland are both below the OECD average (Germany is a bit of a special case because of its extensive training and apprenticeship system, which tracks students as early as high school).
Sweden's rate is almost identical to that of the United States. Norway is just a tick higher: 47 percent.
And two more free-college countries, Brazil and Slovenia, are below the average too.
So "the most educated workforces in the world" today don't have free college. And countries that do have free public universities don't necessarily have more educated workforces than we do.
Is it an open-and-shut fact-check case?
Maybe not. Andreas Schleicher, a top education analyst at the OECD, had some final thoughts for NPR Ed.
"It is not possible to establish meaningful relationships between the cost of higher education and attainment, as there are too many intervening variables," he said. (Translation: This armchair exercise is a bit futile.)
"However, it is clear that growth in attainment in the U.S. has been particularly low and cost is likely an impediment to this. Many European countries provide free public higher education and in virtually all of these countries taxpayers benefit from this (in the sense that the additional tax revenues paid by better educated workers far outweigh the public expenditure on higher education)."
In other words, we probably could get some more people through college by footing the bill. Not only that, it would probably pay for itself.
Schleicher also suggests that there's a cheaper way to get the same benefits: by expanding our current Pell Grant program and student loan repayment options, similar to steps the U.K. has taken. Sanders has some ideas on that too, of course.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And now let's turn to the Democrats and examine a pillar of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BERNIE SANDERS: Yes, we are going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.
SHAPIRO: Sanders' pledge has come under attack, especially because it's not clear how he would pay for it. But a lot of people are saying it's a good idea. NPR's Eric Westervelt looks at both sides of the debate over the cost of higher education.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's hardly a shock Sanders's free college plan has touched a nerve. The higher-ed nerves are pretty raw. Students are getting smothered by debt while the price of higher education has risen steadily and real wage family incomes have been mostly flat. Add to that the fact that some amount of colleges is now vital for finding any hope of a stable job, and you've got the makings of an affordability crisis or, as Sara Goldrick-Rab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison puts it...
SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: The middle class is truly being priced out of higher education right now.
WESTERVELT: Sanders's estimated $75 billion a year free public college plan has plenty of detractors. Kevin James is with the Center on Higher Education Reform at the Conservative American Enterprise Institute. James worries that free public college would do nothing to curb rising spending by wasteful administrators and end up subsidizing wealthy kids who can afford to pay for college and could actually end up limiting access.
KEVIN JAMES: When you make college free, essentially what you're doing is you're making institutions entirely dependent on public dollars. Whatever the public is willing to spend kind of determines how many students can go to college. And so in times when budgets don't keep up with expanding enrollments or even when budgets get cut, essentially that means that some students can't go.
WESTERVELT: But if the Democratic primary race pits Sanders' passionate idealism versus Hillary Clinton's can-do pragmatism, many who study college access and funding are siding with idealism, saying, in effect, perfection is the enemy of progress. Professor Goldrick-Rab says Sanders is advancing an important idea that a college education isn't just a privilege for the rich but a publicly-funded necessity alongside K-12 education, public libraries, police and fire protection.
GOLDRICK-RAB: If all we do is accept the status quo and insist that everything is very small and incremental, then nothing real will ever happen.
WESTERVELT: Goldrick-Rab knows that one of the biggest knocks against Sanders' plan is that paying for it with a tax on Wall Street speculation seems politically unrealistic. But her research makes the case that free two-year public college for all could be funded without new taxes simply by cutting inefficiency and waste in current higher-ed spending.
GOLDRICK-RAB: Most people don't realize how much money is already being spent. It's just not being spent well.
WESTERVELT: Others see his plan through the lens of growing inequality. Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom sees free public college as key to addressing other long neglected issues, including...
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Unequal access to quality schools K through 12, unequal access to the resources to continue education by race, class and gender. We know those things are real, and this won't solve all of that. But I think it is an important intervention in the parts that we can solve.
WESTERVELT: Historically, most every major policy change, she argues, has seen a fierce debate over feasibility followed by efforts to make it politically feasible. Eric Westervelt, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.