College For All

On May 19, Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the “College For All Act,” calling for the elimination of “tuition and related fees” at public universities in the United States.  In his speech he gave a number of reasons for his plan, including the fact that 40 million Americans have $1.2 trillion in student loan debt, and many European countries have eliminated their tuition and fees. In essence, he argued that a university education should be a right.

This last concept was introduced back in 1966 in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.  Article 13(2)(c) states, “Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education.”  Since then, all but a handful of states have ratified the Covenant– Comoros, Cuba, Palau, Sao Tome and Principe, and the U.S.  In other words, the U.S. is not keeping up with international standards.  We are an exception in the global community.

Since I previously wrote a post comparing the U.S. and Scandinavia, I will not go in to what he said about other countries.  Suffice it to say, he is correct that those countries have eliminated tuition and fees.

Let’s get to the nitty gritty of it all- the cost of eliminating tuition and fees at public universities.  In his plan, the federal government pays for 67% of the total tuition and fees, while the states pick up the remaining 33%.  In order for the federal government to pay for their part, Sanders introduced a tax on Wall Street.  This means that taxpayers have to foot the bill for the state portion.  Being the curious person that I am, I wanted to figure out what that would be here in Wisconsin.

Most of the data I used came from the UW System Fact Book, 2013-2014.  I started by calculating the total number of undergraduates (Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors only) at each of the UW universities and colleges.  The Fact Book was kind enough to have already split those numbers up into resident and non-residents, although it did not break down non-residents into reciprocity students and non-reciprocity students.  This is important because the cost of tuition for the former is cheaper than for the latter group.  The Fact Book also has the tuition/fees for each institution, again making my life a bit easier.  Since it did not break down students by full time or part time and reciprocity or non-reciprocity, I made everybody full time and the reciprocity students into non-reciprocity students.  This means that my calculations will actually be at the maximum level.  As such, the total amount of undergraduate tuition/fees paid in 2013-2014 for all 26 UW universities and colleges would be $1,513,092,675.  Again, that is higher than actual because of my methodology (making everybody full time and charging all non-residents the out-of-state tuition/fees.)  Under Sen. Sanders’ plan, the federal government’s bill would be $1,013,772,092, leaving $499,320,583 for Wisconsin residents.

To figure out the amount for Wisconsin residents, I used the population numbers from 2013.  Since I could not find numbers for the amount of taxpayers that year, I divided the $499.3 million evenly among those employed in July 2013 (2,887,850).  The resulting amount would be $172.90 per employed person.  For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that rate stays the same for 45 years (putting your employment age from 15-60) and that the employment numbers stay the same.  If you paid $172.90 each year for 45 years, you would pay a total of $7,780.50; the weighted average of tuition/fees in 2013-14 was $7,232.  Over four years that average amounts to $28,928, but you only paid $7,780.50; in other words you pay for one year over your working lifetime and get three years of university education for free.  On top of that, the average debt of borrowers for the UW system as a whole in 2013-2014 was $29,219.  Eliminating tuition and fees just about wipes out that debt, giving students a chance to get on their feet after leaving the university.

While this is not exact, it does give us a ballpark figure.  It clearly shows that eliminating tuition/fees at public universities is actually a better deal than our current system.  As such, I hope that the public will give Sen. Sanders’ plan serious consideration.

Thanks for reading.


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