In many ways the flood of bold, progressive policy proposals coursing across America’s political landscape began in 2015, when Bernie Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, put a plan to make higher education at public universities free at the centre of his upstart campaign for the presidency. Then the idea seemed radical, even gimmicky. Now it is noteworthy when leading Democrats oppose the notion. Yet some do, for example Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, and their arguments still pack a punch. Why indeed should taxpayers’ money be spent on the children of the rich rather than more generous financial aid for the poor? The Democratic debate over free college is in fact part of a deeper disagreement about how best to structure a welfare state.
Across much of the rich world, a public-university education is free or nearly free, apart from the cost of books and living expenses. (Danish students even receive a stipend to help pay for such things.) But those in America and Britain pay tuition fees which are high and growing higher. In Britain, a change in the law in 1998 allowed public universities to begin charging. The average tuition fee at four-year public universities in America has roughly tripled over the past three decades after adjusting for inflation. Rising fees represent an evolution towards a means-tested approach to covering the rising cost of higher education, which has gone up steadily all around the world. Places like America and Britain pass some of this increase on to students in the form of higher fees, with the understanding that poorer students will receive financial aid while richer ones will bear the full tuition bill.