The Toledo Blade, June 30
U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., want to forgive student debt and provide future undergraduates with free tuition at public colleges.
The proposals may help the two stand out among the crowded field of Democratic presidential candidates. And they pose an interesting question: How high might a generation of young people unburdened by student debt might soar?
Unfortunately, the pair are addressing the issue in a vacuum.
Wiping away existing debt and offering free degrees in the future would do nothing to address — and might even exacerbate — the related problem of spiraling college costs. Free tuition also could result in more students pursuing low-value four-year degrees while jobs in the trades and the technical fields go unfilled. That disconnect could hurt local economies.
Student debt, college affordability and workforce development are inextricably linked. Regardless of what may sound alluring on the hustings, it makes no sense to rearrange only one piece of the puzzle.
One observer said the competing proposals for student aid have started to resemble a political “arms race.” Ms. Warren struck first, suggesting a sliding scale of loan forgiveness based on a person’s income. Mr. Sanders upped the stakes last week with a proposal to cover all outstanding public and private college debt — an amount totaling about $1.6 trillion, Mr. Sanders would fund his loan forgiveness/free tuition plan with a tax on stock trades, including those associated with 401(k) plans, while Ms. Warren has called for higher income taxes on the nation’s wealthiest 0.1 percent.
The proposals would upend the custom of working for most of what the government provides. People pay into Social Security and Medicare before receiving them in retirement. Even the Civilian Conservation Corps, a Depression-era relief program, married the individual’s need for work with the nation’s need to get work done.
There’s also the question of how much socioeconomic leveling these “progressive” programs would provide. Forbes noted that elimination of graduate school debt would be a boon for doctors, lawyers and other professionals with big incomes. Vox pointed out that free tuition could disproportionately benefit more affluent families, whose kids are more likely to go.
Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren also have failed to consider the way loan forgiveness and free tuition have been used in the past and the adverse consequences that changes might bring.
For decades, the G.I. Bill has been a recruitment tool for the nation’s all-volunteer military and rewarded servicemen and women for their sacrifices. If college becomes free, the armed forces may have a more difficult time finding competent recruits.
Similarly, the federal government offers the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program for college graduates who take certain jobs in government or the nonprofit sector. Debt forgiveness and free tuition could alter the workforce for those employers — or cause some workers to bolt their jobs as soon as their debts are erased.
Nor does the nation need to prop up struggling colleges and universities. These institutions should redefine their missions and shore up their finances, or they deserve to go out of business. Perhaps more should adopt the model of Kentucky’s Berea College, where students pay no tuition but work 10 to 15 hours a week in one of 100 or so approved positions benefiting the campus and community.
This much is clear: With their plans to cancel debt and provide free tuition, Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren have demonstrated an inadequate grasp of some of the nation’s thorniest academic, social and economic challenges.