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How Do We Make College More Affordable?

For weeks, I’ve been writing about the problems with college and the way it’s financed. That was easy. Finding solutions is the hard part.

First of all, let’s stipulate that there are plenty of ways to get an education. If you just want to learn for the sake of learning, there are plenty of colleges that post their lectures online FOR FREE! You can download Kindle editions of the great works of literature for a couple of bucks each. I once subscribed to a course that emailed me little mini lessons every day. I enjoyed the one on Art History immensely.

There are also plenty of ways to get job training at low costs. You can go to the welding school here in Atlanta for about $9000 and graduate in six months making more money than I will ever hope to make. There are technical colleges. You can join the military. Many employers will pay for college classes.

If you want to earn an actual 4 year degree, there are cheaper ways to do it than Harvard. Start with 2 years at a community college and then transfer. The College Level Examination Program (or “CLEP”) offers online courses for a fraction of the cost. State colleges and universities are far less expensive than private ones.

But with all of those options available, there are still students and parents willing to borrow thousands of dollars for a degree. And why shouldn’t they? Last week’s bribery scandal revealed that some feel that a college diploma is worth spending thousands of dollars just to get your kid admitted (or, if you’re Jared Kushner’s dad, it was worth a $2.5 million donation to Harvard.)

Jonah Goldberg posted an interesting question last week: would you rather have the Yale diploma without the education, or the education without the diploma? Most people would take the diploma, no question. Because education for the sake of education is a wonderful thing, but that piece of paper is what opens the job opportunities.

Changing our culture is going to be difficult. If you grew up in the 80’s like I did, every sitcom had what I called the “Mikey goes to college” episode. The plot rarely varied. The slacker kid that did poorly in school would ponder skipping college to get job. Mom and Dad would have a cow and insist kid go to college. After all, Mom was usually a lawyer and Dad was a doctor, so they could afford to pay tuition without going into debt. Nobody ever stopped to question whether or not Mikey actually NEEDED to go to college. Ultimately, slacker kid always made the “right” decision. And, if the show stayed on the air long enough, he was eventually shown with his cap and gown at his college graduation, thanking his parents for showing him the right way.

A lot of young people today ARE turning away from the college path. But it’s a hard thing for parents who were raised in the “college for all” mentality to let go of that image. That’s one of the reasons I ended up in debt. I realized at 20 as my sophomore year was ending that I didn’t know what I was doing. I liked school and was making good grades, but I had no earthly idea what I wanted to “do with my life” or what degree to pursue to make that happen. I suggested to my parents that I take some time off. I had a summer job that I enjoyed and they offered me a full time position. My parents hit the roof. My dad told me in no uncertain terms that I WOULD be staying in college. After he died, I knew that my graduating was his last wish and did what I had to do to make it happen. It turned out to be a poor decision. When I finally graduated 2 1/2 years later, I was thousands of dollars in debt and my first job payed the exact same salary I had been offered earlier. Imagine if I had chosen to keep working instead? Then I wouldn’t be whining here about how much student loan debt ruined my life.

We don’t do people a favor by letting them take on more debt than they can afford. I bought a new house last year, and my real estate agent thought it would be a good idea to by the new house first, move and THEN try to sell my old house empty. I qualified for the mortgage, but the underwriters scuttled the deal. They felt that I couldn’t carry the mortgage AND pay taxes, utilities, etc. on both houses. Which was true! And what if the old house DIDN’T sell right away?

Maybe student loans should be assessed the same way. Instead of just allowing students to borrow any amount deemed “necessary,” maybe someone should sit down and consider how much the student was likely to earn and whether the loan amount would be manageable. After all, $100K loan is not unreasonable if you’re going into law or medicine. But it’s far too much if you’re majoring in Women’s Studies or Art History. Maybe there should be a maximum cap on borrowing. Because why WOULDN’T colleges keep raising tuition charges if the loan program defines “need” as the gap between what the college charges and what the student can pay?

Democrats of course have a solution for all of this: make college free! But the problem with that is there is no such thing as “free.” What they really mean when they say “college should be free” is that “Congress should take money away from taxpayers who have earned it and use that money to pay tuition for every kid with a pulse.”

It’s easy for conservatives to mock the kids complaining about there debt and dismiss them with “Well, you shouldn’t have done that.” But as I pointed out before, it’s YOUR problem because YOU guaranteed those loans as a US taxpayer! It won’t help our society for conservative parents to scrimp and save and send their kids to community college if liberals are allowed to borrow with abandon. In fact, nothing will make the inequities in our society worse than having one class of people forego colleges due to the expense, while another relies on the taxpayers to fund it.

Government subsidies have contributed to the escalating cost of college. Pouring more money into it will just make the problem worse. Economics 101 shows that the more you subsidize something, the higher the price rises. (So, at least I learned something in college.)

The Brookings Institute has proposed a “risk sharing” program that would require colleges to have “skin in the game.” This would require the colleges themselves to repay part of the money if the student defaults. You can read the details here: https://www.brookings.edu/research/a-risk-sharing-proposal-to-hold-higher-ed-institutions-accountable-to-their-students/

Personally, I think we should turn off the tap. The government shouldn’t be in the student loan business at all. Banks would take a much more sensible approach to lending if the loans weren’t guaranteed by the government. And colleges would have to figure out how to make their products affordable if the government quit subsidizing them with student loans. It’s called the “free market.”

Apprenticeships would be another solution. Businesses that need workers with certain skills could pay for that training in exchange for the worker being contractually obligated for a set time period.

If the government DOES finance education, it should at least be for the skills that we need. We need nurses. We need engineers. We’d get a much better payoff in this state if we devoted all the proceeds from the Hope Scholarship towards funding GA Tech than from what we’re doing now. Society as a whole benefits from a more educated population. Nobody benefits from entitled students running up thousands of dollars of debt for worthless degrees.

And if we DON’T come up with some workable proposals, the liberals will eventually win with their “free college” proposal. Then we’ll all be direct funding the elite indoctrination centers instead of just underwriting the loans.

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