By Justin Haskins
Published June 27, 2019
Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., offered yet another proposal this week to create a massive, multitrillion-dollar new government program – this time pledging to cancel all existing student loan debt and make two-year and four-year public colleges tuition-free.
Sanders is clearly trying to appeal to people like me and my wife for our votes, because together we owe more than $500,000 in student loans, and we spend thousands of dollars every month on student loan payments.
But sorry, Bernie, you can’t buy our votes. Your proposal – like your other big-spending socialist plans – will never get my support. Let me tell you why.
Currently, U.S. college students, graduates, and their parents owe about $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loan debt.
When hearing about the large debt load my wife and I are carrying, many assume we are financially irresponsible people. But while some of our debt could be fairly chalked up to poor decision-making, most of it is the direct result of my wife’s pursuit of becoming a surgeon.
We’re both from middle-class families who didn’t have large amounts of money sitting around to spend on our college educations, so when my wife decided she wanted to become a doctor, we either had to incur a gargantuan debt load or she had to give up her dream. We chose the former, and we don’t regret it.
Medical school costs are outrageously high. It’s not uncommon for tuition and fees to exceed $60,000 per year, and in some places, the costs are much higher. And because medical students aren’t allowed to work separate jobs while enrolled full-time in medical school, nearly all are either dependent on their parents to pay for their living expenses or rely on student loans.
There are thousands of dollars in additional expenses, too, like costly textbooks, thousand-dollar standardized tests, travel expenses, moving costs, and more. Just applying to medical school can cost more than $10,000.
My wife and I did what we needed to do to get her through medical school (and me through graduate school), and although we’re now stuck with a big student loan bill, we’re OK with that. We made a calculated investment in our future, and it’s our responsibility to pay the bill – not our neighbors, not taxpayers – and we hope we’ll end up benefitting financially from our decisions in the long run.
Although we may be in the minority when it comes to young people and socialist handouts, we’re not alone in facing astronomical higher education expenses. Tens of millions of other students have also found themselves in difficult financial situations as a result of high student loan debt.
But what Sanders and many congressional Democrats won’t tell you is that the government’s involvement in the student lending industry has made the student debt crisis significantly worse.
The cost of attending a four-year college has increased dramatically in recent years, far outpacing inflation and cost increases for many other goods and services. This is, in large part, the result of government having become increasingly more involved in higher education lending.
Under President Barack Obama’s administration, the federal government took over much of the student lending industry by expanding federal lending programs. Instead of controlling costs, prices have skyrocketed.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reports the average cost of tuition, fees, and room and board at four-year institutions increased by nearly 30 percent from 2009-10 to 2017-18. The average cost to attend a private four-year college was $43,139 in 2017-18, up 35 percent from 2009-10.
Under the Obama administration’s policies, many students (and their parents) became eligible to receive tens of thousands of dollars in student loans from the federal government that they previously might not have been able to obtain.
In most cases, the federal government promised to lend students as much money as schools asked for, with few, if any, serious lending limits. This is what allowed colleges to raise the cost of tuition and room and board to astronomical heights in the middle of a major recession.
The Obama administration’s changes to student lending are part of a decades-long trend of government involvement. Over the past 50 years, the federal government has been steadily expanding its numerous loan programs, and the results have been disastrous.
NCES reports that from the 1963-64 school year to the 1983-84 school year, the average cost of attending a four-year college (in inflation-adjusted dollars) rose by about 12 percent. In the 20 years that followed, from 1983-84 to 2003-04, the cost of attendance rose by 78 percent. And since 2003-04, inflation-adjusted costs have increased by 32 percent.
As these figures clearly illustrate, government involvement in higher education has done nothing to keep costs in check. In fact, government involvement has encouraged reckless spending on the part of students and schools.
As someone who has a massive student loan debt, I can understand why so many people would be attracted to having the federal government pay off all student loans. But as history has repeatedly shown, getting government further involved in education is only going to make things worse.
We don’t need more government debt-reduction programs; there are already numerous such policies in place, including loan forgiveness for public service, loan forgiveness for teachers, income-based repayment plans, and automatic lifetime loan forgiveness for those who make payments for two decades.
The only way to reduce the student debt crisis is for government to scale back its involvement in student lending, allowing market forces to fix the many distortions in student lending and higher education that have developed as a result of the government’s policies.
Young people who are interested in avoiding debt have the option of pursuing skilled labor jobs, many of which offer high-paying careers without the need for a college degree.
Now, more than ever, it should be easy to find an affordable college education. Recent technological innovations – including high-speed Internet, streaming video services, and increased access to free and affordable books – can cut education costs by a large amount, but only if schools are incentivized to offer more affordable degrees.
Further, government should make it easier and less expensive for new colleges to open their doors and existing colleges to expand if they are willing to provide affordable educational opportunities.
Giving Sanders and the administrative state in Washington control over higher education might eliminate much of individual student lending, but students will end up paying for the debt one way or another – most likely through higher income taxes or increased costs passed down by businesses that end up paying more in taxes.
America needs more personal responsibility and less government when it comes to higher education. Sanders’ plan would continue pushing the country in the opposite direction. That’s why I’m saying “no thanks” to Sanders' newest offer for a government handout. You should too.