Morris: College Debt, Exacerbated
by Leo Morris
Having an educated populace has always been seen as a necessary component of our constitutional republic. Citizens need more than the basic knowledge to earn a living; they also need to understand their civic rights and obligations as members of a self-governing community.
A free, public education has therefore been one of the benefits we expect from government, at least up to a point. In my lifetime, that has been to the high school level. I presume most of you who made it out of 12th grade did so without accumulating massive debt or forcing your parents to both take third jobs.
It has been argued in recent years that, because of the growing demands of technology and the increasing complexity of a new world order, a high school diploma is no longer sufficient in the modern workforce. If that is so, then shouldn’t government be involved to some degree?
Both points – the need for college and the advisability of government involvement – are debatable, of course. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they are true.
How should the government proceed?
There are two obvious choices.
The first would be to subsidize college, the way we have previously subsidized education at the lower levels, through a combination of local, state and federal funding mechanisms.
Tuition would be low enough to draw most students who wanted to go. The minimal (relatively) tax burden would be offset by graduates entering the workforce and growing the economy. All options for high school graduates – college, military, trade school, immediate entry to employment – would be equally available People would have the enormous freedom of choice this nation is so proud of and could determine the paths that best suited them.
Easy, effective, eminently defensible.
Then there is option 2.
Come up with a scheme in which the federal government creates a quasi-public agency to funnel money to banks with which to make student loans, and on which they can make a profit. Colleges will have a steady and growing stream of new students, and a cut of the profits. Naturally, this will enable them to increase their tuition costs.
College suddenly goes from a public good to a profit-making enterprise, and a never-ending spiral begins. Tuition increases, which requires students to borrow more money, which pushes tuition up, which . . .
Before long, students nationwide have accumulated a breathtaking $1.75 trillion in debt. Not only do graduates have crushing burdens that will haunt them for most if not all of their working lives, the promised good-paying jobs after graduation seem increasingly elusive.
And along comes a president who conceives the brilliant idea to forgive $10,000 in debt for some students, and $20,00 for others, a “solution” that does an amazing job of making just about everyone mad.
Students who don’t qualify for the forgiveness or for whom it won’t be enough (the average student loan debt in Indiana, for example, is $30,000). `
Students who have already made enormous sacrifices to pay off their loans.
Students who never went to college.
Americans who have other debts, such as mortgages, they are struggling to pay off without government help.
Working-class citizens who know they will be paying the taxes to bail out their better-educated neighbors.
Liberals who think the forgiveness doesn’t nearly go far enough.
Conservatives who argue that it is foolish to “spend” $300 billion to $1 trillion more of nonexistent government money over 10 years (depending on who is estimating) when the national debt is already $30 trillion, just adding to the inflation already threatening American households.
Even those who will benefit the most from the forgiveness will likely end up resenting the whole thing – years of debt-induced anxiety followed by years of envy from those who see them as more privileged.
The most frustrating part of the whole plan, which should anger everyone else, is that it exacerbates the problem it claims to solve. Debt forgiveness, even at this level, will just encourage colleges to again increase tuition, which will . . . well, you get the point. It is akin to solving the medical cost crisis with more government intervention, when government intervention that masked the cost of medicine to consumers helped create the problem in the first place.
So, government again, when it sees a problem, discards the obviously best solution and makes the worst possible choice.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.