Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and other Democratic hopefuls want to forgive 42 million college graduates of their accumulated debts of $1.5 trillion. If this happens, it will mean that no one will ever again have to pay tuition to a public college or university. Except for food and lodging, books, and other incidental expenses, higher education will be free to all. The intent is to reduce class differences by making college more affordable for lower income students. As it is, college grads have lifetime incomes that on average are about a million dollars more than high school grads.
The million dollar gap, however, is deceptive. College incomes are higher because a degree is associated with certain wealth-producing characteristics, such as perseverance, higher IQ, verbal ability, parental connections and so on. Such people will prosper even without a degree. A study by Edwin Rubinstein of the Hudson Institute says that the degree itself accounts for only 15% of the high school-college income gap.
Further, the gap is due less to a rise in college incomes than it is to the collapse of high school incomes. Since the 1980s, real earnings by college graduates have risen by only 4%, while those of high school grads have fallen 14%. Employers know that a high school diploma no longer means serious learning (the New York Times has called it "counterfeit") so, when filling an unskilled job, they will likely hire college grads, hoping that at least they may be able to read. This drives down wages for high school grads.
College graduates have been in oversupply for 50 years, and millions hold down jobs that don't require a degree. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only one-third of U.S. jobs require college. If a college degree won't yield a high-paying job, then grads must take what they can get. So, in 2017, 115,000 college grads were working as janitors, 80,000 as truck drivers, 83,000 as bartenders, and 325,000 as waters and waitresses. Providing free college will only worsen the situation.
Not everyone needs a college degree to gain a decent income. The median income tax for plumbers in 2017 was $52,404. For electricians, it was $54,327, while homebuilders made $59,275, and truck drivers for private fleets - currently much in demand - raked in $73,000. Many other skilled jobs pay more than college-level jobs and it doesn't take a pile of money and years of study to acquire the necessary credentials.
How would "free" tuition be paid for? Why, by soaking the rich, a perennial fantasy among the Left. Warren's plan would tax families with a net worth of $50 million or more. But several European countries have tried this and found that it didn't work. All the rich had to do was leave.
The plan will further weaken the independence of higher education. In 2011, the Obama administration wanted to lower the incidence of college rape, so it ordered the campuses to abolish basic judicial rights. Fearful of losing federal funding, most campuses complied.
College is a high-stakes gamble. When it doesn't pay off, those who undertook the risk should bear responsibility for its consequences. Losers should not bear responsibility for its consequences. Losers should not be entitled to a refund of their investment any more than gamblers who lose at casinos.
A better way to make college affordable is to reduce wasteful spending. Bureaucracy grows with every save-the-world fad that drifts over the campuses, resulting in new deans and provosts for everything. It also goes into lavish sports programs, all of which lose money, as well as extravagant student centers and posh apartments. Maybe they could also trim those ridiculous electives in Madonna study and the like.
A sum of $1.5 trillion would be better spent on the truly poor rather than on people who will, upon graduation, have better than average incomes through their own efforts. By making college tuition free, more poorly qualified people will enroll in college. This will mean a continued decline of academic standards, more grade inflation and more remedial courses. If we wish to narrow the wage gap, it would be much wiser to rehabilitate the high schools which are "counterfeit" because their curricula are full of electives that are nothing but junk.