What Would Free College Be Worth?–Meditations on Bernie Sanders’ Plan

Yesterday (24 June 2019) Senator Bernie Sanders upped the discussion among those candidates hopeful of winning the Democratic nomination. If I understand his plan, there are two parts to it.ap_738914881801-smaller_slide-c38afbf1af02da96e2f3e6688d883493538cf8cd-s800-c85

Part One: Offer free tuition at public universities and trade schools to everyone.

Part Two: Cancel all existing student loan debt.

ABC news reported it this way on their website:

Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced his most sweeping plan yet to tackle the increasing cost of a higher education, introducing a bill Monday that would make public colleges and trade schools tuition free and cancel outstanding student loan debt for everyone full article here

I completely understand why some people want these changes. It starts with the pernicious problem of history majors from Princeton with $150,000 in student loan debt only qualified to teach history for $45,000 a year. I feel for these situations, I really do. I was able to attend the college of my choice because of financial aid, but still had to borrow some money to finish. A four-year university is expensive and the most expensive schools and degrees do not always offer promising jobs in the future, especially if all you have is an undergraduate degree.

Yet there are problems with the Sanders’ plan. If you make something free, the value plummets. By excusing debt, those who have already paid their loans back and those who chose to go to local schools, work through, and leave debt free are punished.

I have five big concerns that make me opposed to Sanders’ (and Warren’s) plan. I want you to know, though, I could be talked otherwise, as these are where I start from not where I may finish. A solid argument could persuade me. I just haven’t heard the solid argument yet.

Objection 1: If tuition at public institutions, like my alma mater, the University of Texas, is free then it will only be a matter of time before a university education at a public school is downgraded to essentially be a biggie sized high school diploma.

Objection 2: When public institutions are so constrained, the dividing line between public and private will only increase (a distinction that is currently neglible) with no public school able to get into the top tier. This will further divide the haves and the have nots.

Objection 3: Many private schools are religious institutions. By excusing debt accumulated, say, at BYU or Notre Dame, the government is funding religious education. As a Baptist, I have a hard time accepting this.

Objection 4: Canceling that much debt at one time, with no obligation or payment of any kind from those who amassed the debt, creates two immediate problems. The first problem is artificially tilting the free market economy.  The second problem is the expectation of a whole generation of mostly young people that they can have someone else pay their debt. It undermines responsibility, which is something college is supposed to teach.

Objection 5: Going forward, what do we do? If you cancel the debt now, in five years there will be students with loans needing to be paid back. Is this a perpetual promise, because that would get expensive fast. Free tuition doesn’t cover the most expensive part of college–room and board, thus guaranteeing there will always be college loans and college loan debt problems.

I am cynical of Sanders’ plan, because the Democratic candidates are falling all over themselves to give away more and more free stuff in an effort to get elected. I have a counter proposal. It is three parts. Part one, increase both need based and merit based federal aid while putting tougher limits on how much money can be borrowed. Part two, instead of free college, spend money on healthcare and create a universal care system. That would take a big spending burden off the entire public. Part three, expand and make for easier application the methods of having individual student loans forgiven. Some methods already exist, but these could be increased to include things like volunteering at your child’s school or a local food bank, jury duty, or donating blood or plasma.

 

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