Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic presidential candidate and senator from Massachusetts, wants to cancel everyone’s student loan debt and make college free, she announced earlier this week.
Although she isn’t billing it as such, Warren’s plan will give handouts mostly to those who are wealthy already, or at least are on their way to upward mobility. Those people should not be priority candidates for government assistance. Inez Feltscher Stepman writes at The Federalist, “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.”
Over at Reason, Peter Suderman identifies this same problem, saying, “the nature of college attendance and student loans means that Warren’s loan forgiveness plan is a massive giveaway to relatively well-off people.” He continues, “In the U.S., only about a third of people over 25 have a college degree, making them a comparatively elite group whose elite status is reinforced by, among other things, the connections they make while at college.”
I went to a decently fancy school, the College of William and Mary, and know many people struggling with the tab they had accrued upon graduating. For people from poorer families, who got no help from parents, I feel plenty of sympathy. For people from wealthier families, who got some amount of help from their parents yet are still stuck with a hefty chunk of student loan debt, I feel less sympathy. The hard truth is that if people were more strategic about reducing their debt burden, they could have graduated in three years instead of four.
I graduated in two and a half years while working 20-25 hours per week. I received a good bit of financial help from my parents, but it was not at all enough to cover four years of in-state tuition and living expenses. My plan from the start was to graduate in three years. After my first year, I realized I was going to run out of money before three years were over, so I sped it up. I entered school with roughly 40 credits through a combination of community college classes, Advanced Placement credits, and my high school’s dual enrollment program, where students could take classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, which counted toward most state school degrees.
Once I entered college, I had to petition do-nothing bureaucrats to let me take 19, 20, and 21 credit semesters to make it all work. I knew I didn’t want to go to grad school, so I got Cs and Ds in a lot of my classes, intentionally; I wanted to exert the minimal amount of effort because I was singleminded in my goal—to graduate with no debt and get the heck out the dismal swamp of Williamsburg, Virginia. I still wish I’d dropped out, but I’m at least glad to not be saddled with massive payments several years out.
Decently wealthy, decently high-performing students can and should do this. Administrators won’t make it easy or tell you this is a doable plan, because they have no incentive to. They want to suckle more money from you, your parents, and taxpayers, pretending it’s in service of your bright, bright future.
When I was in school, I asked for data on the number of students who had graduated in two and a half years over the past decade. The provost’s office identified about 15 (the number of three-year graduates was an order of magnitude higher).
This is a fundamental flaw in the way we’re messaging college. We’re telling people to prioritize the wrong things—the experience, not the shackles of debt; doing what’s normal, not doing what sets you up for happier adulthood; luxuriating in your four years, not thinking forward to the decades you might spend seemingly drowning in stress based on a decision you made at a very young age.
We’re failing students by not reminding them early graduation is an option, by not communicating what sort of dent loan payments will make in each and every paycheck for the next decade. We’re failing them when we put hurdles in their way, making it harder to take a creative path through college, acting like “good” and prestigious students would never dream of workarounds like mine.
Understandably, this is an area where people get defensive, regretful—perhaps defensive because they’re regretful—and self-righteous pretty quickly. People are convinced that their path was right, or that their circumstances dictated why they did college a certain way. People rarely self-identify an agency problem because that would require deeper reflection, and they might not like what they find.
To be sure, there are circumstances that make a route like mine harder. But specifically for this subset of students I described (one whose parents will not be footing the entire bill, but can chip in for a portion of it, who attend schools that have AP and dual-enrollment offerings), it shouldn’t be criminal to suggest that four years’ worth of college can reasonably be completed in three.
This route requires some sacrifice: you will drink less watery, garbage beer. Professors and administrators might try to instill doubt in you (remember, their incentives are not aligned with yours). You will feel overworked. Still, you always have the option of failure—and failure, in this case, means taking four years to graduate instead of three. At a
highway robbery institution school like William and Mary, that would mean saving $23,400.
Warren’s plan is foolish for many reasons, mostly because she’s attempting to provide handouts that help relatively affluent people get even wealthier. The government already botched their meddling in the higher education industry, and that’s a big reason we’re in this mess.
If you want to reduce your debt burden, don’t take other people’s money to do it. Attempt to get a little more creative and stop buying into the four-year college dream you’ve been peddled by scammers who don’t really care about your future at all.