College tuition reform is all the rage on the Democratic side of the presidential race. I can see why. With so many graduates saddled with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars of student loan debt and so many current students staring that future in the eyes, it’s not only a practical matter worth discussing but also a political winner; reducing a debt burden and shifting future costs to the larger taxpaying population would be a great way to win millennial votes.
The plans range from “debt free” tuition that would determine tuition cost based on formulas similar to what FAFSA uses now (a scenario that eliminates tuition for lower income families while impacting it marginally or not at all for higher income families) to straight up free college for everyone attending a public college; these would of course be paid for through re-directed government funds or additional taxes. Supporting both plans is the argument that a broader group of people getting a college degree, especially from lower income families, is a net positive. Additionally, supporters of Sanders’ free college plan claim this will aid overall college diversity as students from higher income families will be enticed to attend public colleges rather than private because of the savings in tuition.
Proponents of greater federal aid for college tuition often point to other western democracies that offer free college tuition. What is sometimes lacking from the conversation is relative tertiary enrollment. Despite the lack of greater public funding for college, the United States sees the vast majority of its high school graduates attend college (and the attendance rates surpass many countries that offer free college tuition through taxes).
But in the United States we’ve seen a growing number of underemployed college graduates—the stories of young people earning college degrees and then working as baristas, for instance. This is a trend that shows no sign of reversing itself, so I’m forced to wonder what happens when we send the remaining 18-20% of high school graduates to college. When I was growing up, the idea behind going to college was that a bachelor’s degree would separate me from other people who had only a high school diploma. That kind of separation is still going to be necessary because skilled applicants outnumber skilled openings. The first breakdown I anticipate in this system (and one that will likely play against arguments in favor of Sanders’ plan) is an even greater emphasis on the school an applicant is matriculating from; rather than inspiring higher income students to attend public schools for free, it seems likelier that private schools would find themselves in greater demand as a way to set a graduate apart. The second breakdown will inevitably be a desire for applicants to have graduate degrees as undergraduate degrees become the new high school diploma; if these new levels of federal funding of higher education don't extend to the graduate level, young people will simply be deferring debt for a few more years. Finally, it’s important to note that missing from all of these plans is any explanation of how additional federal funding will curtail increases in college costs since up until now all evidence points to the contrary. If greater federal funding ultimately comes with strings like what programs a public college can offer and what a public college can pay administrators and professors, will this further drive demand in private schools?
I have college loans that I’ll be paying back for at least ten more years. I chose to attend a private school, and this is a burden I have because of that decision. I’d be lying if I said the basic pleasure center of my brain didn’t like these college tuition proposals. But none of them address any of the consequences that extend outward from such programs. Nor do any of them touch on the issue of high school graduation. Yes, the United States enrolls more high school graduates in college than Germany (to the tune of over 20%) even though Germany has a free tuition program. But Germany also has a high school graduation rate of 95%. We were thrilled recently when ours hit 81%. Rather than throw around sexy sounding tuition proposals to attract millennial voters, I’d love to a see a comprehensive plan that gets more students through high school and does a better job matching up educational supply with the different levels of vocational, technical, and skilled demand.
(Single subject post this week...partially because I've found recent conversations on the topic interesting and partially because nothing apocalyptic has happened in Greece. Greater variety next week I hope.)