“College for All Act” and the erosion of academic excellence

[![Lund University in Sweden](/content/images/lund-1024x421.png)](/content/images/lund.png)
Lund University in Sweden
Who wouldn’t want to go to college for free? While the benefits for pupils are seemingly obvious, offering free education can significantly damage the educational system of a country in the long run. Still, following the rapid increase in the popularity of democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the idea of free college, through paid tuition, has gained more popularity than ever before. Candidate Sanders has repeatedly stated that he would see an educational system like those in the Scandinavian countries implemented in the United States, ensuring free college tuition for all to alleviate student debt and allow for broader access to education. Having spent my entire academic career in Sweden prior to coming to Stanford, I find this Euro-lauding bizarre. Sanders’ suggestions have been in effect in multiple countries for decades, yet their long-term detrimental effects seem to have escaped the notice of those advocating them here in the United States.

Swedish higher education, often glorified in the United States for its ostensible equality and quality, has suffered under political decisions similar to those advocated by Sanders. Starting in the 1970s, the left-wing government in Sweden, led by prime minister and social democrat Palme, decided that access to higher education was too restricted due to the notorious difficulty of graduating from Gymnasium (the equivalent of high-school). In order to ensure equitable access to education, final exams (which were separate from the grades students received in subjects) were abolished and the party decided that only grades should be considered for admission to any Swedish university or college. This meant no essays, no extra curricular activities, and no teacher recommendations. In addition to this, free tuition was guaranteed to all students by the government awarding money to universities in proportion to how many matriculated students achieved passing grades*. The political goal was to create a more open and non-exclusionary educational system. Not surprisingly, the number of students qualified for university significantly increased as a result of the lowered requirements, and in order to ensure equal treatment, government took over the college admission machinery, starting to simply allocate students to universities.

The combination of paid tuition, easily attainable Gymnasium degrees, and the ostensibly meritocratic admissions system was disastrous. The first consequence was that admissions ironically became less fair, as good grades were significantly easier to achieve at lower-pace and lower-demand high schools – so much for the meritocracy. Second, the perceived attainability of and lowered prerequisites to higher education led to an immense increase in applicants during the seventies, creating lines and lotteries to determine admission. When thousands of applicants with perfect grades apply for some hundred spots, numerus clausus – closed numbers – inevitably follow. Third, due to the obsessive focus on grades, students narrowed their academic pursuit during Gymnasium and studied only the subjects they needed to gain access to their college or university of choice, as nothing else could possibly give them an edge in the admissions process. As a result, students were left woefully unprepared for universities having pursued nothing outside of what was required.

While these unfortunate effects were largely due to the lowered admission criteria and the failed attempt at a meritocratic admissions system, the worst consequence – a direct result of free tuition – would take decades to unfold. Still dependent on students graduating with passing grades in order to receive funding, the universities slowly started to make curricula and tests easier in order to juggle the sudden influx of students and the funding model which made the them dependent on the success of these very same students. Over the course of thirty years, this ultimately had dire effects for all higher education in the country, resulting in a significant loss of quality across the board.

What occurred was a significant erosion of standards as a result of a distortion of incentives. This is not a hypothetical scenario. This has happened as a result of political ideas almost identical to those proposed by Sanders.

Now, proponents of Sanders would respond to this story that it is in society’s interest to educate the population; after all, does the risk of lowered quality really matter as long as more people have access to higher education? Sanders himself writes in his “College for All Act” that “Other countries recognize that allowing all qualified students, regardless of income, to achieve a higher education is an investment in the economic prosperity of their people.” He later mentions Sweden as a prime example.

The question of whether it is more beneficial to provide education to more people at the expense of quality is, while separate from the standards-erosion issue, an interesting one. The case for publically funded education in grades K-12 is politically settled; very few people would disagree that ensuring free pre-collegiate education to children is hugely beneficial for society. This is why we have public schools. However, it is not clear whether this extends to college, like Sanders argues. In several European countries, for the reasons mentioned above, many colleges and universities have become cost-free ways of partying away one’s prime years while pursuing degrees that cannot possibly increase one’s ability to work in industry. This is especially unfortunate as liberal arts degrees barely exist in Europe, leading to universities that provide neither breadth nor quality. On a societal scale, the result is an arguably non-trivial economic inefficiency, comprised of dubious degrees, wasted time, and a job-market so saturated with college graduates that even the most menial of jobs require some sort of degree. This is what a fall in the value of higher education looks like.

Even though the educational systems in Europe differ from the American one on more levels than tuition, there exist significant dangers to rebuilding the educational system in the way that Bernie Sanders proposes. I do not know whether the US is in any danger of following the same path many countries in Europe have taken, but it does possess a remarkable and unique standing in academia, completely dominating in quality and esteem. It is in the interest of all Americans not to jeopardize this position. Furthermore, while college tuition is high in absolute terms, the value of the education is empirically  much higher (why else would anyone attend college in the first place?). Bernie Sanders’ ideas are not new ideas; they have been implemented in Europe and beyond for decades. Don’t mistake old ideas put forward by new people for genuinely fresh proposals.

For additional reading, please see:

http://stanfordreview.org/article/sanders-stanford-what-stanford-would-look-like-under-the-college-for-all-act/ – Philip Clark’s piece on the possible implications of the “College for All Act” for institutions like Stanford

  • Free university has been guaranteed by the government starting in 1852. At that time, only two universities, Uppsala and Lund, existed in Sweden.
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