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Senator Sanders’ Not So Great Free College Proposal

(CATO | Russell Rhine) - Sen. Bernie Sanders proposes free college for all and the cancellation of all student debt.

Americans have watched the price of four-year college rise faster than inflation for several decades. This phenomenon is complex and can be attributed to several factors. Two of the most important factors are:

  1. the rising cost of education and campus amenities (keeping technology current, expanding physical education facilities, more administrative positions, improved meal plans, and so on).
  2. students’ increased willingness and ability to pay higher prices, owing to easy access to government subsidies.

The first point is enabled by the second, and Sen. Sanders’ proposal will simply exacerbate the problem.

President Reagan’s then-Secretary of Education William Bennett famously articulated the second point in a 1987 New York Times op-ed, saying: “If anything, increases in financial aid in recent years have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that Federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase.”

Free college and debt forgiveness are the motherlode of aid to colleges and universities, which under Sen. Sanders’ plan will fuel rising costs that will be redirected from students to taxpayers. Massive federal education funding will join other unsustainable “third-rail” entitlement programs and grow, adding to federal spending, the deficit, and debt.

If student loans are forgiven, those who borrowed—in some cases irresponsibly—are rewarded, whereas those who paid for their education by making sacrifices are punished. If anything, this would cause resentment and may discourage future responsible financial behavior. If Americans believe that debt is something that can magically be eliminated by government, why not maximize mortgages, car loans, and credit card debt?

And worst of all, education quality and accountability will suffer. We’ve seen this play out for decades in free public K-12 schools, where per-pupil cost rises continuously and student performance stagnates or falls. Underperforming schools remain open and continue to provide inadequate education to many children.

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