Editor’s note: This article first appeared at Forbes.com.
Today’s version of “A chicken in every pot” is Hillary Clinton’s proposed plan to “make college affordable and available to every American.” This is political catnip, pure and simple. And it is a more delusory form of catnip than Herbert Hoover’s “chicken,” for while everybody needs enough to eat, not everybody needs to go to college.
There is today an oversupply of college degrees. A Federal Reserve study found that half of recent graduates were working in jobs that didn’t require a college degree or not employed at all. For Mrs. Clinton to propose spending $350 billion to subsidize college attendance will exacerbate rather than reduce the glut of college-educated Americans. To propose such wastefulness when federal debt already exceeds $18 trillion is fiscally irresponsible and a slap at American taxpayers. It will also increase the number of graduates experiencing disillusionment when they realize the lack of market demand for their degrees.
The increasingly overt socialistic nature of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign theme is glaringly evident in her “New College Compact.” She laments, “For too long, families have been left to bear the burden of crushing costs” of a college education. Heaven forbid that Americans be expected to pay for what they consume! (A quick “thank you” here to those whose generosity funds academic scholarships to highly qualified and motivated students from poor backgrounds.) Who does Mrs. Clinton think should pay if not the consumer? Her plan explicitly specifies that the federal and state governments (i.e., the taxpayer) should foot the bill at public universities and colleges.
Along with state financing, Hillary Clinton advocates increased state control. She thinks that government should micro-manage post-secondary institutions by telling colleges where they must spend their money (less on administrative expenses), commanding colleges to accept junior college credits (regardless of the four-year colleges’ own academic standards), and deciding when to waive accreditation standards.
Clinton’s disfavor of the private sector is obvious: She expresses sympathy for students with “an expensive degree from a for-profit institution” only to find that a degree doesn’t lead to a job. Why single out graduates of for-profit colleges and universities when the same disappointment befalls many graduates of not-for-profit institutions, too? And why should students who agree to work for government receive earlier cancellation of their debts than private-sector workers? That’s a double-whammy on the taxpayer, whose taxes first would subsidize the student’s education and then pay the student’s salary after college. And why is it necessary for government to make sure that community colleges offer more “two-year degrees and certificate programs that are valued by employers?” Why can’t private educational entrepreneurs survey the marketplace to discern what degrees and certificates are valued and then profit by providing them?
As for the horrendous problem of college debt blunting the lives of millions of younger Americans, Clinton doesn’t acknowledge that the federal loan program is responsible. If she were not so ideologically averse to the private sector, she might see privatization of the college loan market as the solution. First, though, bankruptcy laws should be revised to include college debt. It is anomalous and unjust to allow mature adults with decades of business experience to erase their debts via bankruptcy if they make a miscalculation, but to deny such mercy and financial relief to young, inexperienced adults. If private lenders issued college loans, and they knew that bankruptcy was an option for young borrowers, then those lenders would calculate that risk. They wouldn’t lend tens of thousands of dollars to students floundering for five or six years or students taking courses that have little value to the job marketplace, and so the glut of over-educated/under-employed young people would shrink.
There is one aspect of Clinton’s higher education plan that makes some ethical, if not economic, sense. Ethically speaking, it seems unfair for the Fed to have engineered low borrowing costs for Uncle Sam while at the same time not sharing some of its windfall by refinancing student debt at lower rates. (Many students are still paying off loans at seven, eight, or nine percent). Economically speaking, though, Hillary Clinton has no business promising that the federal government “won’t profit off student loans.” While “profit” apparently is a dirty word to Clinton, any loan program should generate enough interest income to pay for the salaries, offices, etc., of those administering the loan. If the federal college loan program doesn’t cover its own costs, then, once again, the long-suffering taxpayer gets stuck with those costs. The economically rational approach is to let the private sector figure out what an economically viable loan market for college education looks like. Economic losses to our society would decline by billions if privatization of student loans supplanted the socialistic status quo.
The New College Compact proposed by Hillary Clinton is economically wasteful central planning, all wrapped up in the beguiling garb of Santa Claus politics. Caveat emptor. Let the buyer (in this case, the American taxpayer and voter) beware. There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.Reach