Is It a Free Education You Want, or an Affordable One?

Is It a Free Education You Want, or an Affordable One?
AP Photo/Meg Kinnard

Campaign season is fully underway and candidates from all shades of the Democratic political spectrum are positioning themselves to be the main challenger to President Donald Trump. Intent on outperforming each other and winning their party’s nomination, they will overpromise things to get elected, so students and parents should play close attention to one of the promises being touted: a “free" college education.

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According to a September 2018 Inside Higher Ed article, “Some candidates want four years of free tuition at public colleges. Others have promised two years of free college at any public institution and debt-free four-year college. And others still support free community college.”

Given the high costs associated with obtaining a higher education, it’s easy to see how the promise of a free education could have universal appeal. As a parent with two kids in college, I know the idea sounds attractive. However, I’m skeptical that giving government more money will create the results that we all hope to see: namely, kids graduating from college with the necessary skills to secure high paying jobs.

What has yet to fully enter the discussion is what it would cost taxpayers to implement these generous proposals. Consider this, after losing to President Trump last time around, Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the College for All Act in 2017 along with fellow Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The price tag for the tuition-free college proposal: $47 billion. But that was two years ago, and the price tag is even higher for Democratic presidential hopefuls today.

Elizabeth Warren, who has also entered the presidential race, is sweetening the deal. She says her plan “cancels $50,000 in student loan debt for every person with household income under $100,000.” But, if you make more than $250,000, don’t expect to benefit from the government largesse. The price tag for this proposal? $640 billion.

Turns out “free college” isn’t so free after all.

To understand just how reckless the proposed educational expense is, consider that our current national debt stands at over $22 trillion. We should all be alarmed that some candidates give no second thought to spending such astronomical sums if it increases their chances of being elected.

Given the political and economic uncertainty that Americans have seen in recent years, it’s easy to appreciate why some voters would seek reassurance that jobs and opportunities —things associated with getting a higher education degree—will be plentiful when kids graduate and enter the workforce.

As a parent, I specifically wonder if our educational system is truly equipping kids with the skills, they need to secure a job. For decades, it seems that the educational establishment has exclusively focused on driving students to attend college even when there might have been better options such as vocational education, trade, tech, etc. Some of those jobs pay surprisingly well and can help students avoid debt while making money early.

Instead of options, students are loaded down with debt. Today, nearly 45 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion in student loans. This crisis didn’t happen overnight; it’s been building up over decades. But nobody rang the alarm.

So, instead of a free education, why aren’t candidates talking about affordable education? Institutions of higher learning are charging students more and then using that money to pay for overrated professors, larger staffs, sports teams, and bigger campuses to enhance their image and attract more students. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that some of these academic ivory towers have become bloated bureaucracies who worry more about their prestige then a student’s ability to graduate with less debt.

We need affordable education that effectively prepares students for the jobs of the future. Education offers people an opportunity like no other to get ahead and build generational wealth; it is a great equalizer. But an education that leads to no job is not worth having, even if it’s free.

Come election time, let’s say no to unrealistic promises, and let’s demand more for our kids. To remain an exceptional nation, we need an exceptional educational system that is affordable and accountable to us.  As Americans, let’s remind ourselves that the only free we can get behind is the kind that gives us more “free”-dom.

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