The Bar-On Brief: Federally funded free public college is irresponsible

The Bar-On Brief: Federally funded free public college is irresponsible

With all the craziness and shelter-in-place directives, it’s easy to forget that it’s an election year, and the Democratic nominee has yet to be officially selected.

Former Vice President Joe Biden may be winning the votes, but Sen. Bernie Sanders is certainly triumphing when it comes to the ideas. The historically independent senator from Vermont has successfully seized control of the Democratic Party, pushing it way to the left — even farther left than the days when Hillary Clinton was the party leader.

Take the issue of free public college as an example. Four years ago, this idea was radical and deemed delusional. It’s still just as misguided to implement on a federal level, but virtually every Democratic primary candidate supported it. And that includes “moderates” like Biden.

In the most recent debate, Biden said he supports a plan to make public universities cost free for families who earn less than $125,000. For context, the median family income in the United States is roughly $63,000. The 75th percentile earns just over $113,000 per year.

There are several problems with the free public college plan, which is clearly meant to score short-term wins without taking responsibility for any problematic future implications — because another president will have to deal with that.

The first problem is that the plan assumes that higher education is a federal responsibility. The word “education” appears zero times in the Constitution. There are no federal public colleges. So first and foremost, even if this plan garners extraordinary support, it should be implemented on a state-by-state basis. Taxpayers in Wyoming, Florida and Montana, where in-state tuition is lower than $6,500 should not have to finance state schools that demand three times this amount.

Second, the plan rewards students with no guarantee that they contribute to the economy or serve the country. It makes complete sense to cut a tuition check to students who commit to serving in the U.S. military. It’s logical to enroll students in loan forgiveness programs when they work in public interest or government jobs. But taxpayers should not have to fund students who have plans to leave the United States and contribute to another country’s economy. It certainly isn’t just to ask taxpayers to sponsor someone’s college tuition if that person later decides not to work at all, not to play a role in the economy and not to contribute to Social Security.

Does the student in ROTC who serves in the military deserve the same government support as me, a political science major? Now consider the art student who has plans to move to Europe after graduation. A legendary statement from a beloved Democrat comes to mind: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

There is no question that equal opportunity is the goal — and yes, it’s far from reality. Private universities in many cases reduce or even waive tuition for low-income families. USC announced this year it will not charge tuition for families of incoming students making less than $80,000. But USC is a private institution and has the luxury of picking and choosing qualified candidates only.

The federal plan would automatically allow all American families below the median income threshold to qualify, no matter which public college their student attends and what their future plans might be. While families will obviously prefer free money to low-interest loans, the economy cannot — and should not — support that. The only way to ensure government aid is reciprocated is to make sure the loan is repaid, either in service or in dollars.

Third, and most importantly, the plan doesn’t attack the root cause of the problem: the astronomical cost of college in the first place. Instead of irresponsibly feeding the beast, the government should do what it can to kill the beast, which is to slash college costs instead of pretending they aren’t ridiculous. The number of college lobbyists on Capitol Hill explains why this route isn’t properly being discussed.

Colleges pay their professors more than decent wages — of course, much is rightfully deserved for the money and prestige they bring to the institution — but many administrators are way overpaid. Federal funding for college completely ignores this reality.

Sharing is caring, that’s true. It’s certainly a well-intentioned plan to fund every students’ college experience, but sharing requires just that — sharing. There is an implied return on investment, a guarantee that whatever is being shared will be passed forward again. Nobody wants to share with someone who takes and never gives back. But that will be an inevitable reality with a blanket free college plan.

Shauli Bar-On is a junior writing about sociopolitical issues. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” runs every other Tuesday.

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