Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has proposed a college debt payoff that she claims out-socialists Bernie Sanders. She may be right. Her proposal calls for not only universal “free” college, but also totally wiping out the college debt of 95 percent of borrowers, with some benefits available for people up with incomes reaching all the way up to $250,000.
The plan is being sold as a boon to cash-strapped millennials and Gen-Zers, but the real recipients of largesse will be the institutions that offer those magical degrees: the universities. The biggest losers will be middle-class Americans.
Americans’ collective $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, mostly in government-backed loans, is likely to be the next looming financial crisis. Instead of underwriting loans that hand out money to “subprime” borrowers who couldn’t afford their mansions, the government now loans money to 17-year-olds to major in basket weaving, and taxpayers depend on debt-staggered students to pay it back despite unrealized income promises. The only happy partners in this equation are the universities, which continue to turn ever-higher tuition, millions in direct federal grants, and tax-free endowments into sprawling diversity departments staffed by administrators with six-figure salaries.
Regressive Democrat proposals for “free” college, like Warren’s and Sanders’, will ensure that the gravy train for universities continues at the expense of the average family making $60,000 a year and the two-thirds of Americans who do not have a college degree. College debt is—paradoxically though it may seem—largely a problem of the upper classes, with the top income quarter of households holding close to half the debt, and the bottom quarter just 10 percent.
Republican responses to such proposals have been predictably flaccid. While there is an effort to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the piece of legislation that governs federal money streams to universities, cutting (or even freezing) subsidies is reportedly not even on the table. Instead, Republicans seem to be kowtowing to Democrats’ demands for more money in return for federal micromanagement of degree programs that look a lot like No Child Left Behind for higher education.
Even an amendment that protects freedom of speech under assault on college campuses is being treated by both parties as a distraction from the goal of sending more money to universities–because they’ve done such an excellent job with the funds taxpayers have sent them for the past several decades. The only positive in Republicans’ plans so far is refusing to allow different standards for innovative for-profit schools than for four-year institutions.
Universities once appealed to the public fisc on the basis of two assurances. First, they claimed that college-educated students would be wiser additions to the body politic: better voters, citizens, and neighbors. To advance that promise of wisdom in the days of safe spaces, intersectional Olympics, and “cuddle parties” is to beg for ridicule. Sixty percent of college graduates do not know how a constitutional amendment gets ratified, and only half know how long a senator’s term is.
Second, in return for our investment, colleges promised their graduates would boost the economy. A college degree, we were told, was the golden ticket to a successful life. While college graduate salaries still compare favorably with those of non-credentialed workers, it’s becoming clear that when debt and opportunity cost are taken into account, there are better ways to advance into the middle class.
Instead, what Americans have received is a breeding ground for some of the most irrational left-leaning ideas and a generation so besieged by student debt that it is a factor in one in eight divorces. One in five millennials expects to die without paying off their loans, and more than a third say their college debt wasn’t worth it.
Conservatives should have sympathy for millennial borrowers, who did everything their parents and culture told them to do to be successful, only to become the most debt-laden generation in history. Countering a culture of credentialism mania with apprenticeships and trade alternatives is a positive step, but the first rule of finding yourself in a hole should be to stop digging. There’s no reason for the average American to subsidize the elite sorting mechanism universities have become.
“Free college” proposals like Warren’s promise to make the route to success attainable for all young Americans. In reality, they grant yet another windfall to a university industry that has expanded by exploiting taxpayers and student debtors, while offering neither much in return for their outlays. The sons and daughters of the elite will receive $5 for every $1 in debt forgiveness given to poorer families, and college costs will continue their skyward march.
Our higher education system is failing students and taxpayers alike. The only entities making out like bandits in a sector awash with millions are the universities. “Free college” proposals are just more of the same, but with a few zeros attached to the price tag.