A New Year’s Resolution For Higher Education: Debt-Free in ’18

Story image for Education from Common Dreams

This song from 1989 always comes to mind during the holidays. First, because I have a strong memory of listening to this album – Blind Man’s Zoo – one Christmas break while doing primary research for my college senior thesis in economics (an econometric comparison of the American and Canadian university systems). But more important, because I picture Natalie Merchant’s Dust Bowl character trailing her kids through Walmart at Christmas time, looking at the toys she can’t afford. Dust Bowl is a realistic depiction of the less fortunate we remember this season – certainly the most poignant such portrait from the not-always-profound 80s music canon.

In higher education, we should be thinking of people like this every day, not only during the holidays. Nearly 30 years later, economic security is ever more clearly a direct product of education, of which we’re the gatekeepers. These are the people who most need our help. Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve done much to help her afford toys for her kids. Quite the contrary. Because if Natalie and 10,000 Maniacs were to update Dust Bowl today, they’d be sure to rhyme “home” with “student loans.”

Student loans haven’t paid off for most young parents. Overall only 57% of the 22 million Americans with federal student loans are current on their payments; 43% are in default (3.6M), delinquent (3.0M) or in forbearance (3.0M). And this may be a high estimate given a recent Department of Education coding error indicating that actual repayment rates could be as much as 20% lower. There are almost 1,500 colleges and universities where the majority of students who borrowed federal loans are making interest-only payments on their loans, or no payments at all. For those who graduated between 2006 and 2011, more than 1/3 defaulted on their student loans, subjecting them to garnishments and ruined credit. A greater number took on loans and failed to graduate due to financial challenges; between 2013 and 2016, more than 30% of students failed to settle their balances, triggering institutional holds and collection agencies. As a result, Millennials have fallen behind prior generations on nearly every economic metric.

As we hope for greater economic security for all Americans in 2018, one of the most important steps we can take is to reduce or eliminate student debt so that we have fewer young parents in Dust Bowl-type situations. The most-hyped debt-free path and one that has nearly become Democratic Party orthodoxy is free college. Blue states Rhode Island, Oregon and New York now offer some version of free college, as does the People’s Republic of San Francisco (along with the red state of Tennessee). The idea of eliminating tuition – typically starting with community college, which tends to be inexpensive to begin with – seems to be catching on. And why not? It’s the most obvious response to the student debt crisis.

Free college reminds me of a restaurant I frequented as a child. Fran’s was the tavern my dad would take my brother and I to get a banquet burger (my choice, served with Toronto’s finest relish tray – delicious in memory, mediocre in reality), and a pancake with a banana smiley face (my brother’s selection – always mediocre, he has no excuse). Fran’s low prices were outdone only by its indifferent service. Two years ago, Fran’s celebrated its 75th birthday by offering 1940 prices for one afternoon. My banquet burger would cost a quarter; my brother’s smiley pancake: twenty cents. What happened? Lines were four hours long. So while lunch might have been (close to) technically free, due to the hassle and inconvenience, it wasn’t exactly worthwhile.

With both Fran’s and free college, the salient tradeoff isn’t between debt and free, but between free and good. Free college that requires navigating oversubscribed classes and transfer credits without clearly leading to a good first job may not be worthwhile, particularly since tuition is only a part of the total cost of attendance. At California State University, grants cover tuition for most students. But CSU students take out student loans and incur significant debt to cover living expenses – rent and food; 25% of CSU students identify as food insecure. According to the College Board, annual living expenses for full-time students are over $8k – more in high-cost metropolitan areas. Given capacity and transfer issues, few free college students will finish in four years, which could translate to $50k+ in debt.

We’ll see the CSU experience play out in Rhode Island, Oregon and New York. As with Fran’s, the line between free and good isn’t a fine line, but a big honking bright line. And that’s not the only line I’m worried about. Just as Fran’s $0.25 burgers drew a long line, “free college” will draw a line of tens of thousands who otherwise wouldn’t have attempted a degree. While some will complete and get better jobs, without massive improvements in completion and employability at newly “free” colleges – an announcement that’s not nearly as advantageous in Democratic political jockeying – a much greater number will incur debt without achieving positive outcomes. To top it off, Politico has already concluded that free college is not a winner for Democrats: “The call for free college tuition fosters both resentment at ivory tower elitism and regret from people who have degrees but are now buried under debt.”