A recent announcement during a commencement speech by a billionaire investor Robert Smith that he will pay off the student debt of the graduating class at a historically black college generated worldwide news coverage.
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Although the donation exceeds $40 million, it will cover the costs of only 396 graduates (Burch et al.). The news began a serious discussion of a painful topic that many have chosen to accept over the past decades, that of student debt upon graduation in the American education system. High costs of higher education have been a barrier to seeking or attaining degrees, disproportionately affecting minorities while severely affecting their finances and life choices of successful graduates. Student debts are a burden to society, thus should be forgiven, and future education costs should be covered.
The first argument towards student debt forgiveness and free education is that it would reduce financial burdens and stimulate economic growth. Current student loans affect more than 41 million Americans to a total amount of $1.2 trillion, with median amounts ranging from $18,000-$36,000 (Perna et al., “An Updated Look” 5). While student loans are an option of financing higher education that reaps significant benefits, there are tremendous consequences for many upon graduation when debt payments need to be made.
A wide variety of situations such as failure to achieve a degree, a low-paying job, or unemployment out of college immediately thrusts young adults into financial difficulty. From an economic perspective, student debt has a “disastrous domino effect” (Hembree). Individuals are faced with costs they are unable to afford or bear with maximum frugality, leading to the postponement of costly life decisions such as buying a house or having a family.
Reliance on loans to pay for college has equity implications as socioeconomic minorities are often most affected by the burdens of student debt (Perna et al., “Understanding Student Debt” 272). A study done suggests that forgiving student debt will boost the United States economy by $1 trillion (Hembree). Debt stifles economic participation, and the extent and commonality of student debt create significant long-term concerns for the national economy.
The second argument supporting the topic is that access to higher education would increase since current costs and associated debts prevent a large number of individuals from seeking post-secondary education or even graduate or professional degrees after college. Many countries offer free higher education in public universities, with evidence suggesting that such initiatives greatly improve access without negatively affecting university funding or quality of education (Pinheiro and Antonowicz 299).
Current financial aid practices do not provide sufficient help, as it often serves to benefit universities by focusing on high achieving students rather than the general population. Populations such as a socioeconomic and racial minority face an uphill battle in gaining access to higher education, with costs consistently rising. The current system is a remnant of the historical college network in the United States, which was meant to serve as the “training ground” for the nation’s wealthiest and elite, barring access to the working class (Glater 6).
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While access has improved, there is still a myriad of subtle systemic barriers which prevent certain populations from easily receiving a higher education. Although consistent with the capitalistic principles that money is needed to create wealth, such restrictive measures to access can become an issue of limiting economic mobility in the modern world and lessen the intellectual competitiveness of the United States globally.
With increased access and greater economic mobility, the third argument which supports student debt forgiveness and free higher education is the economic diversity and education which it can offer. Currently, students are unable to pursue passions, and many critical professions are left underemployed because the financial burden that individuals accept for education is not comparable to the return they might receive in various fields. There is a widespread opinion that higher education should be a public good, thus mostly free and accessible. Under the limitations of student debt, individuals have fewer opportunities to pursue passions, new concepts, or the use of personal talents.
Forgiveness programs have been directly associated with driving students towards careers needed in society, such as public service (Perna et al., “Understanding Student Debt” 281). In a different system, this could potentially lead to greater innovation or, at the very least, a more diverse economy with employees spread out in different fields and professions that are needed for the country and society to function.
Despite the superficial appeal of a free tuition model, it is highly problematic for various reasons. One large concern is how would colleges and universities be able to fund their operations, which would only become costlier with greater attendance. It is unlikely that the government would be paying the same amount that a student pays for tuition and other aspects, creating problems for universities that need to constantly expand, evolve, and fund innovative research projects.
The next issue is social, which would post the question of fairness. Hypothetically, debt relief and free education would not occur immediately, requiring certain populations to be targeted first. It would create an-level playing field and face challenges in court as to the reason why certain populations are selected based on race or socioeconomic status, while similar burdens may be affecting a middle-class family just as much.
There are also concerns about marginal students potentially taking advantage of such opportunities leading to poor academic incentives in the education system. Finally, the economic argument based on research and expert opinions suggests that there is no relationship between higher education spending and economic growth (Vedder). There is a relatively low social and economic return in exchange for such a large investment that a universal national program would entail.
From another perspective, if student loans are forgiven, or the government covers the majority of the costs, it would come from the budget, which is maintained by taxes. Such policy requiring billions annually would inevitably result in tax hikes across all brackets. Therefore, the debt would not disappear; it would simply be shifted, applied to the whole population, regardless of education status. Opponents of such extensive programs state that policy should address the core issue at hand, which is the exponentially high costs of a college education which is climbing.
Furthermore, any debt relief efforts should not be universal but focus on populations where student debt is an issue which are socioeconomic and racial minorities, those graduating from small or community colleges, those forced to withdraw from college, and students entering low-paying jobs (Edwards 80). This opposing argument relies on the basic economic approach, which opponents of debt forgiveness and free education often cite. The amount of funding that would be required to start broad loan-forgiveness programs is extraordinary, making it economically impractical and potentially impossible with already existing deficits in the budget as well as current political realities.
Discussion and Solutions
The political and economic realities of the situation do force consideration of the opponents of free education. However, the discussion is complex and requires examination. Anecdotal evidence such as school district in Michigan where college tuition was paid by benefactors or states which offer promise programs, suggests that there are potential rewards from free education. Logically, enrollment increases dramatically, with college attainment rates growing exponentially.
In turn, the district is able to thrive by building new schools and expanding primary and secondary education. Individuals can significantly improve their skills and well-being by having access to higher education or vocational programs for free, with numerous existing state programs demonstrating the effectiveness of such ambitions (Harris). There are noticeable economic benefits as well as graduates grow the local economy and businesses thrive, with new entities being attracted to a growing community or city.
Once again, referring to political and economic realities, it is unlikely that free college will be a possibility and debt relief universal in the near future. However, as a solution, it is possible to adopt a national program based on existing state efforts. The federal government has the finances, even currently without significant tax hikes, to fund incremental programs which cover at least two years of education.
Associated costs such as room and board and others are still paid by students if possible, and colleges are compensated appropriately to ensure the public institutions are able to remain competitive. Any tuition cost coverage will be followed by a legal pledge by students to maintain a certain GPA and possibly to work in the state for a certain time, which would ensure economic growth in some regions (Harris). Large-scale plans that focused on significant debt relief and free tuition have been dependent on a tax increase, primarily for the ultra-wealthy.
Most recent plans proposed by the likes of Senators Warren and Sanders suggest an annual tax rate of 2% for families with more than $50 million in wealth, which accordingly will maintain the fund to support such drastic measures (Kinnard). While such plans are not possible in the current political climate, the arguments presented by opponents remain challenged based on existing evidence and potential solutions which begin to address the issue.
Even without a tax hike, it is possible to begin the process of debt reduction and tuition compensation. Economic and social benefits do exist with extensive measures helping numerous families in need and stimulating national economic growth. At the same time, it can be argued that addressing this issue also begins to affect others, such as income inequality and a disproportionate lack of opportunities for certain demographics. Access to education is directly tied to welfare and socioeconomic growth, which further promotes the argument that changes must be made to the broken system currently in place.
The evidence provided in this essay demonstrates that college debt is a significant issue to many American citizens, creating financial burdens that impact their life. With the topic in the limelight of public discussion, there have been calls to initiate government-funded programs that would forgive or repay current student debt and create a free higher education system in the United States moving forward.
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Proponents of such initiatives argue this would increase access to higher education, creating a competitive workforce and economic growth stemming from greater market participation due to lack of debt and higher-paying jobs. Meanwhile, opponents suggest the lack of funding, economic practicality, and failure to address the core of the issue with such comprehensive programs. Student debts are undoubtedly a complex topic, a solution to which is not as obvious as simply forgiving debts and instituting free education, even if it was realistically possible. Nevertheless, a reform to the current broken system is necessary to alleviate the burdens of loans and barriers to education which often disproportionately affect the most vulnerable populations.
Burch, Audra D. S., et al. “A Pledge to Pay Morehouse College Students’ Debt Prompts Elation, Envy and a Host of Questions.” The New York Times, 2019. Web.
Edwards, Dana. “How We Can Solve the Student Loan Debt Crisis.” The Journal of the James Madison Institute, 2016, pp. 79-90. Web.
Glater, Jonathan D. “Barriers to Higher Education Access.” UC Irvine Law Review, vol. 7, no. 1, 2017, pp. 1-7. Web.
Harris, Adam. “America Wakes Up From Its Dream of Free College.” The Atlantic. 2018. Web.
Hembree, Diana. “New Report Finds Student Debt Burden Has ‘Disastrous Domino Effect’ On Millions of Americans.” Forbes. 2018. Web.
Kinnard, Meg. “Warren Unveils $640 Billion College Debt Forgiveness Plan.” Associated Press. 2019. Web.
Perna, Laura W., et al. “Understanding Student Debt: Implications for Federal Policy and Future Research.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 671, no. 1, 2017, pp. 270-286. Web.
—. “An Updated Look at Student Loan Debt Repayment and Default.” Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative, vol. 5, no. 6, 2017, pp. 1-8. Web.
Pinheiro, Romulo, and Dominik Antonowicz. “Opening the Gates or Coping With the Flow? Governing Access to Higher Education in Northern and Central Europe.” Higher Education, vol. 70, no. 3, 2015, pp. 299-313. Web.
Vedder, Richard. “The Case Against Free College Tuition.” Forbes. 2018. Web.