On Monday, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders announced a new proposal to cancel all student loan debt and to fund free four-year public and community colleges. Altogether, the proposal would cost $2.2 trillion over 10 years — making rival candidate Elizabeth Warren’s radical $1.25 trillion over 10 years loan forgiveness plan look relatively moderate.
As appealing as it might sound, though, Sanders’ proposal is a slap in the face for college graduates like me who had planned ahead, compromised on our choices and struggled in order to limit our student loan debt. Not to mention, it’s just one massive handout to the wealthy that fails to address the root of the college affordability crisis.
In 2014, when I was making college decisions as a high school senior, I was lucky enough to know I had some financial support from my parents. But my family was also in the lower middle class — so money still played a heavy role in my school selection. We couldn’t pay very much out of pocket, so I chose the college that offered me the biggest merit-based scholarship and the most need-based aid, requiring the smallest amount in loans: Messiah College in Pennsylvania.
Another deciding factor for me was that the school counted credits from college-level courses I had taken in high school, allowing for the possibility that I could graduate early and cut more costs. Even with a double major and working part-time as a tutor and a campus janitor, I pushed to graduate in three years by maxing out and sometimes overloading my per-semester credit count.
Sacrificing and smart choices paid off
I’m thanking myself now. I graduated in 2017 with a mere $5,000 in student loans — which I expect to pay off in a few years — and I’m still enjoying the benefits of a college degree. Certainly, I’ve had a lot of privileges and I received a valuable education — but I still made sacrifices that many of my peers chose not to. I picked an affordable school over others that could have been better, passed up study abroad and extracurricular opportunities, worked during summers and missed out on my senior year entirely.
I’m frustrated. For folks like me, if all student loan debt is indiscriminately canceled as Sanders proposes, the sacrifices we made are rendered meaningless. And for the many others who gave up even more than I did to be financially independent after college, “frustrated” likely doesn’t even begin to describe how they’re feeling right now.
It’s true: College affordability is a massive problem. The cost of tuition has more than doubled since the 1980s. And it continues to climb, leaving younger generations of graduates with significantly more student loan debt than their parents had. This high cost most hurts disadvantaged people, as low-income students are far less likely to graduate from a four-year college than their wealthy peers.
Even so, Sanders’ loan forgiveness plan will benefit the wealthy much more than it will the lower-class. After all, the top 25 percent of households in the income distribution hold almost half of all student loan debt, according to the Urban Institute. By contrast, the bottom 25 percent hold only about 10 percent. That means for every dollar his plan would give to poor families, five would be given to wealthy Americans.
Loan forgiveness only helps in the short term
More fundamentally, Sanders’ proposal doesn’t even address the underlying reason why tuition has gotten so expensive, and he could make the problem even worse. Research suggests that past increases in the amount of federal aid to universities have simply caused them to raise their tuition rates, sometimes by as high as 65 cents for every additional federal dollar. If taxpayers foot all of the tuition bill, as Sanders wants, colleges will have reason to inflate tuition even more. This won’t be felt immediately by students, but it’ll hurt them eventually when they graduate and become everyday taxpayers.
Rather than funding the exorbitant sticker prices of America’s colleges, it’d be much better for everyone if policymakers held the institutions directly accountable. Innovative alternatives to traditional student loans such as income-sharing agreements — where private investors fund students and are paid back by students’ future income — are a promising way to incentivize universities to actually become more affordable and career-focused.
Sanders wants students to be spared the risk of investing in their own futures. But people like me, folks benefiting from their undergraduate and higher-level degrees, should have skin in the game. After all, over our lifetimes, we’ll make millions more with our degrees than we would have without them. Certainly, college should be accessible and affordable to all. But to get there, it doesn’t require giving welfare to the rich and punishing the young people who chose to exercise some financial responsibility.