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Elizabeth Warren's and Bernie Sanders' 'Free' College Idea Would Be a Disaster for International Students

October 20, 2019 in Economics

By Neal McCluskey, Catherine Straus

Neal McCluskey and Catherine Straus

Higher education is a major US export, a reality that presidential candidates calling for “free” public college have overlooked.


Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in particular have placed the idea of offering “free college” among their signature issues, but when asked about the likely effect on international students the Warren campaign did not respond and the Sanders campaign did not provide comment in time for publication.

Unfortunately, both Democratic candidates’ plans pose a risk to our international trade in education and offer a major reason why the US shouldn’t rush into enacting a free college system.



For a little perspective, in the 2017-18 school year, there were 891,330 international students studying in US colleges.

At the undergraduate level, the focus of free college, 442,746 out of 16.8 million students were international, or 2.6% of the total.

Exempting International Students From a Free College Plan Risks Losing Those Students

At specific schools, international students are even more important. At the University of California at Berkeley, international students comprised about 3,600 of 30,600 undergraduates in 2018, nearly 12% of enrollment. And many fields of study, especially technical subjects such as engineering and economics, draw heavily from international pools.

Ending tuition and fees for Americans would almost certainly lead to big revenue losses for institutions. Warren and Sanders would likely use the lure of federal matching funds to encourage states to boost their direct funding of colleges, and hence make them tuition- and fee-free.

In 2018, public colleges brought in more than $74 billion in tuition-and-fee revenue, minus state aid to students. With about 90% of public college students undergrads, free college would require $67 billion more annually. That’s a ton of revenue to make up for, especially since most states are strapped by medical and pension costs.

Oh, and the national debt is approaching $23 trillion.International students are already a favorite <a target=_blank href="https://ejournals.bc.edu/index.php/ihe/article/download/9993/8677/" …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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