Opinion / Politics

Biden’s Free-College Plan Is a Solution in Search of a Problem

BidenFormer vice president Joe Biden made a stunning announcement last month: In a major leftward move, he would back Senator Bernie Sanders’s original free-college plan for families earning up to $125,000 a year.

News of this radical policy shift was lost amid coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, and now there is a risk that it will escape the scrutiny it deserves.

There are at least two broad arguments against the Biden free-college plan. First, the problem it seeks to solve — unaffordable tuition at public universities — is extremely overstated. Free-college supporters argue that tuition at these public institutions — the only colleges covered by Biden’s plan — has risen to unaffordable levels, especially for students from low- and middle-income families. But this claim is usually based on published “sticker prices” at universities rather than the net prices that students actually pay after their financial aid is applied. In other words, free-college advocates measure college affordability before factoring in existing policies meant to make college more affordable.

A 2019 opinion piece in the New York Times by a former Obama administration staffer is typical of this approach. The article makes the case for a new federal funding stream intended to help public universities tackle rising and unaffordable tuition, which is effectively how the Biden and Sanders plans would work. The author cites sticker prices published by the College Board to demonstrate how unaffordable public institutions have become. There is no mention of what students pay after financial aid is applied. In fact, the author doesn’t discuss financial aid — including the large increases that President Obama signed into law and that remain in place today — at all.

There’s a reason for that: When you factor in student aid, the tuition picture changes dramatically: The prices that students from families earning less than $125,000 per year pay to attend four-year public colleges and universities have not increased nearly enough since the mid 1990s to justify the sweeping reforms that progressives support.

The chart below shows both the sticker and net prices for these students in inflation-adjusted terms from the 1995–96 academic year through the 2015–16 academic year, based on the available data from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Post secondary Student Aid Study. These data are from administrative records that reflect all aid that students actually received, not just what they were eligible to receive. In the 1995–96 academic year, students paid about $2,000 (in 2015 dollars) on average to attend an in-state public university after their student aid was applied. By the 2015–16 academic year, that number had risen just $400, to $2,400.

To be sure, the chart shows that sticker prices have increased rapidly at public universities. But, contra the claims of free-college advocates, students and families have not borne those increases, because financial aid from states, the federal government, and colleges themselves has increased nearly as much as sticker prices on a per-student basis. This suggests that the existing financial-aid structure made up of targeted grants, tuition discounts, scholarships, and tax credits is hardly the failure that free-college supporters make it out to be. One might even conclude that it seems to be working pretty well, at least from the students’ and the universities’ perspectives. At a minimum, the substantial amount of aid available to students suggests that the radical new approach to the issue proposed by Biden and Sanders is a solution in search of a problem. And make no mistake, the Biden/Sanders plan is certainly a radical new approach.

That is where the second broad argument against the plan comes in. Biden’s plan will change incentive structures in the higher-education system in a way that could exacerbate existing inequities, while giving decisions that have historically been the purview of states and universities to Washington, D.C

At the core of the free-college plan is what progressive advocates call a new kind of “federal-state partnership” in which Washington would match state spending to fully subsidize tuition at public universities. Participation would be optional for states, and opting in would commit them to meeting a range of new federal requirements. Those requirements are the key centralizing feature of the plan, and as states and universities attempt to either game the system or tailor their new free-college plans to their own unique circumstances, the federal government is sure to impose more of them.

Funding shortages and limited access aren’t merely theoretical effects of free college; they are a standard part of the international experience with it. For example, Finland offers free public universities, but it can’t afford to offer them to all citizens. Its universities end up rejecting two-thirds of applicants each year. And when public universities — especially the elite institutions — have to ration limited seats, they raise admissions standards, denying entry to low-income students who tend to have lower test scores than their more affluent peers. That exact pattern was what ultimately convinced Australia and England to abandon their free-college policies and start charging tuition decades ago. Access to higher education actually increased as a result.

In short, the Biden free-college plan would be a boondoggle. In seeking to solve an affordability problem that isn’t nearly the problem supporters of the plan have led us to believe, it would create much bigger problems. Policymakers should instead embrace the existing, actually successful student-aid system and improve upon it, rather than scrapping it for a radical, risky, expansive new federal program.

Reprinted with Permission from - National Review by - Jason Delisle

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3 months ago

All of these plans are simply a way to put more money in the hands of liberal academia administrators and professors. It rewards them for brainwashing America’s children‼️🤯

Robin Boyd
3 months ago

Nothing is “free”. Socialist programs should never be implemented and/or run by the Federal Government because that forces everyone to have to pay for the benefit of a few. That makes the U.S. Socialist. The U.S. became a great nation as a Republic.

Patriot Will
3 months ago

Biden does not have a clue. His plan is very full of holes, which will only make things worse. We should start encouraging more young people to learn trades. Our country is in desperate need of plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, etc. Why do we encourage so many young people to earn non practical degrees such as women studies, black liberation politics, environmental socialism, etc. — which usually only encourage young people to be overly critical of our traditional patriotic values.

Brian B
3 months ago

Nothing gets an American’s attention faster than the word “free.” FDR used it to great success, and Democrat politicians have used it ever since. The problem is that nothing is free. There is always a price to be paid.

Arthur Casanova
3 months ago

The Left lies again and again.

Brenda Blunt
3 months ago

There is no such thing as free! Someone has to pick up the tab and it is usually the American citizen.

Thomas F. Olszewski
3 months ago

Typical demoncrat spending someone else’s money. What did anyone get for free that was worth anything?

Adam Gibby
3 months ago

I would love for someone to argue that monies borrowed for “school specific” ie. Not housing, not food, not dining plans, not transportation… etc… JUST School and books be loaned at 1% interest or interest free. If you want to borrow for other things like I mentioned earlier – THAT could be loaned at whatever percent as that doesnt help you build your future. You will always have to pay to live, to travel, to eat… but monies borrowed from the US Govt, for direct education expenses should be interest free. Pay back what you borrowed. Thats it. This “free… Read more »

3 months ago

If they wan’t to cut college costs cut the exorbitant salaries and perks afforded the liberal professors. Tax the hell out of the massive endowments these liberal colleges are receiving. Have blind applications so the race, sex, religion or orientation of the students is not visible.

Phil Hammersley
3 months ago

Why should I, who went to college to actually study and get a degree in something employable, use my tax dollars to subsidize people having beer and dope parties, trips to spring break havens, and majors in “women’s studies,” LGBTQ, etc.?

3 months ago

Very informative article.

Rick H
3 months ago

A very easy and practical way to end the student debt crisis would be to shift the lending and collection function over to the universities. All of the universities have large endowment funds that could be used to initially fund this venture. The endowment funds would be replenished as students paid back their loans. By doing this the universities would become responsible for determining how many, for example, Russian literature degrees vs how many engineering degrees can be supported by the economy. And, since the universities are the experts at finance and economics, they would make wise choices in determining… Read more »

3 months ago

Gotta buy those votes with taxpayer dollars. Everything about this is a farce. 1. A college degree is not helping young people find good paying jobs. Job skills do that. 2. The university system is gradually de-moralizing the population….giving them more money will only make their power to errode greater. 3. Young people will not appreciate nor respect what is handed to them. That respect comes from what they have to work to attain 4. The ‘worth’ of a college degree will decline and gradually become meaningless 5. Budget deficits will continue until the nation can no longer make interest… Read more »

3 months ago

No no no this country was founded on God Country home hard work caring helping not on giving free anything yes there are some that need extra help, some students that are very smart but are poor that needs help but need to pay back once they start earning

3 months ago

When you sign up for “Free” college education I’ll guarantee you it will be the same as joining the military. You will work for the regime as they see fit and at the job and pay rate they decide. Medicare For All will be the end of private care medicine and the only healthcare providers will be Deep State controlled. How do you think they are going to get healthcare professionals to work for nothing or very little? By contracting them through these “Freebies”. Biden can vow to give away anything for “Free” but being a Democrat politician he will… Read more »

Ruth Williams
3 months ago

I believe in telling young people to learn trade like in plumbing, carpentry, electrical, heavy equipment operators, and auto mechanics. All these field will not be replaced by computers or technology. These trades are physical work. My grand kids owed a lot of student loan money. That graph that they showed above, does not include the students I know that owe a lot of money. I don’t believe anything is free. Even our military is not free. We have soldiers die for this country. So what makes them think free college plan will work. Nowadays, students with college degrees cannot… Read more »

3 months ago

If the government is involved, it seems they’ll expect the Kudos as if they gave the “FREE” education when in reality if came out of the pockets of working individuals. Not much is appreciated when given free. We have a bunch of silver spooned fed babies in leadership whose parents evidently spoiled them… Not even close to reality of average working citizens wages-living index. I agree with Shoe below, the government lauds the staff with higher salaries for brainwashing mis-truths. Check out the salaries they pay sport coaches, unbelievable. University of Oregon former retired coach made millions a year, now… Read more »

Press ONE for English
3 months ago

Once upon a time, college was a way to differentiate yourself from the masses, especially where employment was concerned. Not too many people went the distance, which was tough and costly, and possessing even a bachelor’s degree went a long way to making you more appealing to a potential employer, resulting in more demand (job offers) and higher pay. Of course in those days the subjects taught in college were more applicable to day day situations and becoming productive. Today all that is reversed. Seems like everyone is getting college degrees, even though in all too many cases the students/graduates… Read more »

anna hubert
3 months ago

Whom exactly is this meant for?For all those high school graduates functioning on grade 5 level?

Dennis Wilhelm
3 months ago

Free anything is meant to buy votes, at taxpayers expense. Politicians cant use their own money, that’s illegal.

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