When politicians promise free college and student loan debt forgiveness, they’re trying to appeal to voters like me — an undergraduate student concerned about the debilitating realities of student loan debt. In an attempt to combat the adverse effects of rising college tuition, prominent progressives like Elizabeth Warren and new Democratic frontrunner Bernie Sanders have advocated taxpayer subsidization of public universities. This policy, they tell us, is the best way to make higher education accessible to everyone.
But taxpayer-funded college wouldn’t actually be as equitable as progressives claim.
Many of my peers support such proposals for free higher education, arguing that it would remedy the power inequities built into our system. Their larger worldview is that our entire society is built upon structures that benefit some to the detriment of others. Politics, then, is essentially nothing more than a zero-sum power struggle — an assumption that animates many of the more extreme proposals that progressives have proposed. But policies like “free college” would be harmful to the very groups these progressives claim they want to help.
Like many proposals from the left wing of the Democratic Party, “free” public college and universal forgiveness of student loan debt would actually be far from free; in fact, it’d be astoundingly expensive in its own right. A charitable estimate from Vox attaches a $1.25 trillion price tag to Ms. Warren’s plan, while the Sanders alternative would come in at a whopping $2.2 trillion. And our skyrocketing fiscal deficits already disproportionately threaten the most vulnerable members of our society, who stand to suffer the most from the various economic consequences of public debt.
To their credit, Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders seem to grasp that this program wouldn’t come up all roses. It’s why they’re both running on increasing wealth redistribution through a variety of government programs. But even if they accomplished this, they’d be better off leaving higher education alone.
Paradoxically, one of the greatest redistributive forces in American society is our public university system. The rising costs of higher education are already largely borne by the richest families, and much of the increased revenue from expensive tuition fees is used to fund the education of less wealthy students. Contrary to progressive talking points on the subject, this has only become more pronounced in recent years. In 2001, 71 percent of students enrolled in American four-year public colleges received financial aid. In 2006, this number was 77 percent, and by 2017 it had reached 83 percent.
In a twist, what Mr. Sanders and Co. might not have seen coming is tuition-free college could actually serve as a regressive wealth transfer from the poor to the relatively rich, as some economists have argued. Using tax money to finance an institution that is largely comprised of Americans from the middle and upper classes wouldn’t actually expand opportunity for poorer families. In other words, government-sponsored college only helps people who go to college in the first place.
This is certainly true of student loan forgiveness, which would amount to publicly-funded relief of debts that are disproportionately concentrated in the highest income brackets. According to a recent study by the left-leaning Urban Institute, more than 60 percent of all student debt is owed by the top half of the income distribution, while only 12 percent is owed by the bottom 25 percent. In fact, most student debt is owed by Americans with graduate degrees. Furthermore, universal forgiveness of student loan debt would only benefit those who already have a college education — largely the upper half of American society. In effect, taxpayers without college degrees would be subsidizing the education of their wealthier peers.
There are a multitude of ways to address the lack of accessible university education without transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. But one-size-fits-all federal policies are rarely the solution — particularly when they use tax money to pay for the education of millionaires and billionaires. There’s also the more fundamental question conservatives are often asking: Should four-year college even be a universal expectation? Wouldn’t many young Americans be better served by a diverse range of trade schools, apprenticeships and general job experience outside of the classroom? Why incentivize all students to go to college on the taxpayer’s dime when not all of us really should?
It’s undeniably true that our current public university system is flawed, but sympathetic lawmakers should focus their energies on low-income students rather than on sweeping policy proposals that mainly remove costs incurred by the wealthiest families in the United States. Free education would really just go against the equalizing ideas that progressives claim to want. They’re forever raging against tax breaks for the wealthy, but in their free public college scheme, a break is exactly what they’d be giving the rich — at the expense of the poor.
• Nate Hochman is a Young Voices contributor. You can follow him on Twitter @njhochman.
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