June 26, 2019

Free College

On Monday, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) unveiled a plan to forgive all student debt and make public colleges tuition-free. Senate.gov

Sanders’s plan is more sweeping than that offered in April by Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), which limits loan forgiveness based on income. Medium

See past issues

From the Left

The left is divided, with some in favor of Sanders’ overhaul of higher education, while others propose more modest reforms.

“Why have public universities gotten so expensive?… Adjusted for inflation, the cost of educating students at public universities has actually increased only modestly. Rather, it’s the price that’s gone through the roof, thanks in large part to a massive shift in costs from taxpayers to students… student tuition as a share of total spending at our nation’s public colleges and universities rose from 24 percent in 1988 to 46 percent in 2015… [In the state of Washington] the funding split dramatically flipped from 70 percent state, 30 percent tuition in 1991, to 30 percent state, 70 percent tuition by 2013…

“Boomers like me have pulled up the ladder behind us after being educated largely at taxpayer expense… I enthusiastically support both student debt forgiveness and debt-free college. Not just because it would be damn good for the economy by giving a whole generation saddled by debt more freedom to build up savings, buy homes, and contribute to the economy. But because I believe in the golden rule: Give unto future generations the same opportunities and privileges my generation enjoyed.”
David Goldstein, Vox

“Spending on higher education is like spending on roads or public parks. You're doing it for the health of all society. And sure, if you make it free to everyone, the wealthy benefit more, because they have more money they can then spend elsewhere. But it would be kind of crazy to charge admission to the country's highways or national parks with a sliding scale fee that increases with income. A better solution is progressive taxation on the rich to scale back inequality across the board — something both Warren and Sanders are very much in favor of. Warren's plan to cancel student debt has more technocratic finesse. But Sanders' plan arguably tells the stronger moral story about what kind of country we should be.”
Jeff Spross, The Week

“In a polity that has decided to use markets as engines of production and distribution where the material bases of ordinary life are concerned, it is essential that all citizens be equipped with the wherewithal to thrive in those markets. And since, over time, markets drive technological and other changes of the sort that require sophisticated skills both to benefit by and even simply to navigate, that wherewithal requires not only primary and secondary, but also ‘higher’ education – i.e., college education. It would accordingly be profoundly unjust to leave access to higher education to the vagaries of the birth lottery. Rather, it must be an incident of citizenship itself.”
Robert Hockett, Forbes

Critics of Sanders’ plan, however, argue that “the democratic socialist candidate is running on a plan to bail out doctors, lawyers and their children to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars — while touting it as middle-class payback for the 2008 Wall Street bailout. Yes, Mr. Sanders would pay for his plans with a tax that fell mostly on the investing class; the point, however, is not the origin of the money but the alternative uses to which the money might be put. In that regard, it makes no sense to transfer so much of the revenue from one group of well-off people to another, when you could spend the $2.4 trillion on, say, pre-K schooling for poor children, college assistance for low-income young adults — or any of several other worthy public purposes whose benefits would reach a needier swath of the American population.”
Editorial Board, Washington Post

“Both Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren… have proposed making all undergraduate programs at public colleges and universities free. That would reduce the need for borrowing. But it would not eliminate future student debt — not even close. That’s because most student loan debt isn’t taken out to attend undergraduate programs at public colleges and universities. Most loans are used for private colleges, for-profit colleges and, most of all, graduate school… This means that the day after Senator Sanders ‘hits the reset button,’ as he put it in the news conference, the national student debt odometer would begin rapidly spinning again…

“Although the nation’s $1.6 trillion outstanding student loan balance is shocking in the aggregate, it’s composed of many different kinds of borrowers and many different academic programs. The Sanders and Warren plans illustrate the difficulty of moving from big-picture numbers and slogans to the nuts and bolts of federal policy.”
Kevin Carey, New York Times

“If we don’t want student debt to pile up all over again, we need to scrutinize the schools that caused the crisis in the first place and make sure young people are savvy debt consumers… First, for-profit education should be at the forefront of this issue… almost half of all students who enrolled at a for-profit school in 2004 defaulted within 12 years. That’s close to four times the default rate for other students, even though students at for-profits typically don’t take on as much debt… Second, the higher-education industry needs to take a deep look into improving completion rates… Finally, we need to do everything we can to make sure that students are financially literate.”
Robert Gebelhoff, Washington Post

From the Right

The right opposes the plan, arguing that there are better ways to reduce costs and rejecting the idea that free college is a moral good.

The right opposes the plan, arguing that there are better ways to reduce costs and rejecting the idea that free college is a moral good.

“The Sanders plan fails to focus on giving colleges a stronger incentive to keep tuition affordable and make sure their students graduate. (One possible way to do that, for instance, is to put schools on the hook to pay back a share of defaulted loans.) Nor does Sanders explore the need to create and encourage non-college pathways to the middle class.”
James Pethokoukis, American Enterprise Institute

“The reason schools keep raising their tuition is that students have easy access to federal student loans, and the government has a near-monopoly on the sector. Colleges know they can keep raising tuition without fear of losing students because federal loans serve as a guaranteed subsidy. Thus, the cost of college has skyrocketed and students find themselves deeper in debt. The solution is not to pay off existing student debt, but to dramatically reduce the federal subsidies pouring into higher education and restore the private market’s role in providing student loans. This would put long-needed pressure on colleges to keep their costs in check, since students would no longer have unlimited, guaranteed funds from the government…

“At a time when Americans are more frustrated than ever with the education colleges are providing for the price, policymakers should be discussing ways to hold colleges accountable, rather than rewarding them with a blank check.”
Mary Clare Amselem, The Daily Signal

“Thanks to creeping credentialism, many jobs that once didn’t require a bachelor’s degree now do. College-funding mechanisms make little distinction between studying nuclear engineering and pursuing contemporary dance. Administration buildings teem with associate deputy deans for diversificlusion, and schools compete to have the most climbing walls per capita. The fix isn’t to promise taxpayer-funded diplomas for everybody…

“[Furthermore] There’s no way a financial-transactions tax would pay for this. It could make America’s capital markets less liquid or push traders overseas. By lowering asset values, it would dent every 401(k) and public pension, while raising costs for institutional investors… The only way Mr. Sanders can possibly pay for his agenda—not only free college and this student-loan amnesty, but also a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, an expansion of Social Security, a federal job guarantee, higher teacher pay, and more—is to soak the middle class.”
Editorial Board, Wall Street Journal

It would be hard to devise a plan that would shower more benefits on the wealthy than this one. Just 12% of college debt is owed by those in the bottom quarter of income earners… Sanders’ plan would relieve doctors, MBAs, and computer scientists of their student debt. These are people who are or soon will be making six-figure salaries. Keep in mind, too, that students who borrow money for college are investing in their own futures, since a college degree is a ticket to higher incomes.”
John Merline, Issues & Insights

“Even with opportunity costs factored in, the New York Fed calculates the return on investment in college at ‘nearly 14 percent,’ which ‘easily exceeds various investment benchmarks, such as the long-term return on stocks (7 percent) or bonds (3 percent).’ It’s not a great investment for everyone, particularly those who don’t finish. But a plan to forgive everyone’s loans, or even Elizabeth Warren’s plan to forgive nearly everyone’s loans, is a massive investment in a population that, by and large, are reaping, and will in the long term continue to reap, the rewards of a smart investment.”
Jonathan Marks, Commentary

“The average student is now graduating with $30,000 in debt, no small sum. But frankly, a college degree is worth it, as it increases lifetime earnings by millions. And the median monthly payment is just $222. If you can’t afford that, as a college graduate, it’s probably your own fault…

“We must remember that while the cost of college has soared to outrageous levels and must be addressed, an affordable path to a college degree still exists. Almost anyone can go to a community college for two years to obtain an associate degree, with the average annual cost just $3,300, a sum easily payable through part-time work. After two years, one can transfer to a flagship state university and…  graduate with a manageable amount of debt. Major in something like business or STEM and you’ll likely have no trouble meeting student loan payments. It’s absolutely fine for students to choose to forgo this path and instead attend their dream school. But it’s outrageous to imply that you shouldn’t be responsible for your debts after making that decision.”
Brad Polumbo, Washington Examiner

The world doesn’t owe you a dream college or a dream house or a dream job. You have no right to someone else’s labor and time. If you want to attend free college, ask professors to offer you their lectures gratis or ask school administrators who run massive endowments to open their doors to everyone. Or, maybe, ask them to bring down their tuition prices.”
David Harsanyi, The Federalist

A libertarian's take

“Sanders’s free-tuition and debt-cancellation plan is less an attempt at redistribution than a statement of values… ‘We will make a full and complete education a human right’… Unfortunately, these newer-fangled human rights are substantially different from the old-fashioned kind because someone does have to pay for them. Physicians and nurses, and teachers and administrators, must be paid to spend their days providing your rights instead of doing something else. And so, these rights will always be limited…

“Given those limits, one still must ask why a self-proclaimed socialist has focused on a new right that will mostly line the pockets of the educated and affluent rather than, say, a right to public transportation or assisted living… Sanders is unlikely to pick up [moderate suburbanite] voters during the primaries, but if he survives, he will need them during the general. And while they’re leery of the higher taxes his programs will require, they’ll be somewhat less worried if the proceeds will largely be spent on them and their progeny. Socialism for the upper middle class might not seem very, well, socialist, but it might turn out to be excellent politics.”
Megan McArdle, Washington Post

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