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Thursday, April 7, 2016


Hillary Clinton and her fans [notably Chris Matthews] have had a fine time ridiculing Bernie's proposal that public college education be free.  Matthews especially cannot control his smirk as he says, in a stagey incredulous voice, "He wants to make Berkeley and Madison, Wisconsin free!," somehow imagining that the cost of higher education bears any direct relation to its quality, as though it were a house.

Well, at two a.m. this morning I decided to check a few facts.  Here is a sample of what I found:

Gross income per capita in the United States:  $15480
Gross income per capita in France:                  $12,445

So America is somewhat richer than France.

Percentage of adults 25-34 with a B.A. in the U.S.:    43%  [higher than I thought]
Percentage of adults 25-43 with a B.A., in France:     43%

So America and France educate the same proportion of adults at the tertiary level.

Average in-state tuition at public universities and colleges in the U.S.:   $13,856
Average tuition at French universities [almost all public]:                        $    585

How can this be?  Simple.  France has made a collective public decision to make college essentially free, just like elementary and secondary education.  America has not made that decision yet.  Bernie says we should.  

Can we afford it?  Yes, somewhat more easily than France can, because we are somewhat richer.

It is that simple.


Mike Doyle said...

Nice numbers.
If we compared what France and the US spend on bombs and wars the numbers might be reversed.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Indeed, indeed.

s. wallerstein said...

I don't know where you get your per capita income figures.

In any case, Chile with a per capita income of 23,564 dollars (the U.S. has 55,914 dollars per capita according to the same figures), very unjustly distributed, now guarantees free higher education in public and private universities (which meet certain criteria) for the poorest 50% of the population. President Bachelet had promised that by end of her term in 2018 that figure would reach the poorest 70%, but due to budgetary problems that seems unlikely. Her plan had envisioned that by
2022 all higher education, in both public and private universities (which meet certain criteria), would be free.

David Palmeter said...

Bernie has not, to my knowledge, said anything about how he would go about providing free university education. This is important because there is a major difference between the U.S. and such countries as Chile or France when it comes to public universities. Theirs are national universities, funded by the national government; our public universities are all state universities, funded by state legislatures. Congress—let alone the President—has nothing to do with establishing tuition levels.

The Federal government could do it, of course, by subsidizing students at state universities, i.e., paying the tuition for them. That would simply allow the state legislatures to charge whatever they want, much as the drug companies are able to do under Medicare’s prescription drug program. The state universities would go along with this happily since raising tuition to unconscionable levels has long been the practice of both public and private colleges and universities.

Sixty years ago, when I attended the University of Chicago Law School (and Prof Wolff was across the Midway teaching philosophy), tuition was $1,050 per year. It is now in excess of $56,000, a rate of increase that dwarfs the increase in health care costs. What can possibly justify this?

Unknown said...

I am a big supporter of the Sanders plan for free public college. But your argument will not persuade the informed as it leaves out key facts.

I do not know how exactly to compare French and US spending on public college education, but the numbers I have been able to find suggest that in the post-secondary education sector generally, the US spends 2.7% of GDP compared to an OECD average of 1.6% of GDP. (Some of that is likely distorted by research unviersity spending, which I imagine is higher in the US.) 2011 data suggest the US may spend double France on annual expenditures per full-time-equivalent (FTE) student for postsecondary education generally, although this mixes public and the (likely somewhat more expensive) private as well as college/univeristy. (Source:

Anyone familiar with the French undergraduate system will recognize its unattractive features: large - 100s and 100s in a room -- lectures no questions allowed, professors who have no personal contact with undergraduates, a fairly lousy and impersonal system generally, especially outside the few elite schools in Paris. Indeed, French undergraduate education is notorious for the lack of ardor of students reacting to a system that teaches little and prepares them poorly.

The US system is, in the main, far better, but it is also more costly due to spending on personnel and physical plant. (Oddly, the salaries of college professors has remained broadly stable in real terms, at least since 1970; wherever all the new money has gone, it's not in their pockets.) Some substantial part of that - legions of administrators, fancy stadia - may be wasteful, but the Sanders plan does not AFAIK address this problem except very indirectly.

Thus, the fact that the French can afford an inferior system that costs half to a third as much as ours doesn't prove much.

Better, I think, to point out that in 1960 it was plausible for students holding low-wage jobs to support themselves and pay the (minimal) registration fees for a college degree -- you could, realistically, work your way through college and graduate with little or no debt. We are not as a nation poorer now than we were in 1960; indeed US GDP per capita is about triple what it was in 1960. If we could do it then, we ought to be able to do it now rather than burden every generation with crushing debt for their investment in what is -- in substantial part -- a public good.

Unknown said...

Apologies - I thought the software would append my name to the above: Michael Froomkin, &

Chris said...

"Bernie has not, to my knowledge, said anything about how he would go about providing free university education."

Yes he has. A tax on wall street speculation. That covers 75% of the costs.

David Palmeter said...

"Yes he has. A tax on wall street speculation. That covers 75% of the costs."

That's how he would get the money for it, but it doesn't address the mechanism of how he would do it. If he had the funds, presumably, he would just pay the tuition, but that route would lead simply to the states emulating the pharmaceutical companies and raising the price in order to take advantage of the program. Presumably, he wouldn't want to do that. If not, I'd like to know how he intends to deal with the fact that the public universities are state, not federal, universities.

Tom Cathcart said...

But hasn't there been significant inflation in faculty salaries as well, at least in private colleges? Anecdotal evidence [n=1]: I remember that in 1961 Paul Tillich, one of 5 "University Professors" (the highest faculty honor) at Harvard, was paid $16,000. My wife is paid 10 times that---and that's at NYU, and she ain't no "University Professor." CPI meanwhile has risen only 800%.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

A clarification about Chile: the plan to make university education free includes all public and private universities (which meet certain criteria). The government will fix tuition charges, so they can't raise tuition. Private universities are free not to accept the plan, but then they will have to compete with free public and private universities which accept it.

Unknown said...

No, the average salary for all full-time faculty in degree-granting post-secondary institutions (including instructors and lecturers, as well as all ranks of professors) in constant dollars has barely changed since 1970.

The distribution, however, likely has changed: there is a new class of "winners" at the top of the salary scale, and a large class of oppressed full-time lecturers at the bottom.

Whatever is driving the cost increase in education, it's not faculty salaries at the college level (law, medicine may differ). The number of administrators has grown rapidly.

-Michael Froomkin

David Palmeter said...

S. Wallerstein,

Thanks for the explanation about Chile. It seems to work on the same principle as Medicare here: the government will pay a specified amount provided the school accepts that as total payment. Of course, the payment could be set at such a low level that schools would not accept it, but if it were high enough that many would accept, it would put a lot of pressure on the others.

s. wallerstein said...

David Palmeter,

It works as you suggest above. It's just begun this year in a tentative program, but it seems that it will create a two tier system. Most everyone (or at least the 70% of the population with lowest family income) will go to free public and private universities, while certain private universities will continue to charge high tuition for the wealthy, who even if tuition were free for everyone, do not want their dear kids to have to attend school with the children of the masses: this is a very very classist and snobbish country!