College tuition should not be fully subsidized
By Lewis Kanagy, Online Editor
Tuition prices seem to be rising uncontrollably, and pointing fingers at the government — calling for fully subsidized “free” tuition — has become a common response.
The current student loan debt total in the United States sits at around $1.5 trillion, and has continued to climb over the past few decades. Paying for college tuition has become a growing concern, and it is developing into a significant limiting factor in determining where people can attend school.
There are two main reasons for this increase. First, more people are going to college — according to the Pew Research Center, there were 9.8 million full-time students in 1990 compared to the 15.9 million in 2012. The second reason is more concerning: college is quickly becoming more expensive. In 1990, students took out an average of $2,485 per year in student loans. In 2012, this number reached $6,928 — both numbers are adjusted for inflation to 2012.
In recent years, more people have supported the idea that public universities in the United States should be paid for by tax dollars. 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is one of the most prominent proponents of this idea. On his website, Sanders states that the first step is to “Make tuition free at public colleges and universities.”
While most people can agree that free tuition would be beneficial to almost everyone, it is equally evident that nothing this significant will ever be free. What Sanders really supports is the idea of making the government use taxpayer money to settle the costs of public university tuition.
In order to justify this increase in government spending, we first have to ensure that the money is being put to good use. If you are looking at college as an investment — which you should, when in the context of debt and tax dollars — the idea is that you spend money now, possibly going into debt, so that you can get a degree and thus a better, higher paying job later on. In other words, pay more now to earn more later.
But if this simple model ended up being the case for everyone who went to college, then we wouldn’t have a trillion dollar crisis on our hands. For this reason, college doesn’t always end up being a good investment, and therefore taxpayers shouldn’t be responsible for covering the costs.
An increasing number of people have been carrying student loan debts longer than the typical 10-year payment plan. According to CNBC, The number of people still paying off student loan debt in their 50s has more than doubled from 2004 to 2015.
If a former student is still paying off their college debts near the end of their career, the question becomes whether or not college was a good financial investment for them.
Not all degrees pay off equally. From a financial standpoint, it would be much easier to justify going $30,000 into debt to get a degree in a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) field than in fine arts, which typically has fewer and lower paying job opportunities after university. I am not suggesting that you should choose your degree entirely based on the potential salary; you should study what you are interested in, but you should not overlook the cost of your degree.
If we made all public universities free, we would remove the consideration of return on investment (ROI) for individual students going to college. The government would likely end up spending more money on students getting low-demand degrees and, in doing so, would be spending more tax dollars with little to no ROI.
Furthermore, if students didn’t have any personal investment at stake, more people would be likely to attend college without any serious motivations to be there. Again, this would result in a low ROI covered by taxpayers. If the government is going to spend tax dollars, they should be absolutely certain that those dollars are going to an unarguably net benefit for the country.
People often compare the U.S. to European countries — specifically Norway — that have “free” university tuition. This is an unfair comparison. Before we can “be like Norway” and jack up taxes to pay for college, we first need to get a handle on universities’ spending.
Universities in Norway spend money differently than universities in the U.S. American schools allocate more money toward campus improvements and building remodels. It is not uncommon for colleges in the U.S. to spend millions of dollars on campus improvements in order to attract more prospective students, giving little thought to whether or not the money spent will really improve education.
An extreme example of ridiculous spending was Louisiana State University’s famous lazy river. This unnecessary addition cost LSU — a public university — a whopping $85 million, according to the New York Times. Needless to say, this kind of thing does not happen in Norway.
If we even want to consider making tuition funded by tax dollars, we first have to guarantee that the taxpayer will not have to carry the costs of huge sports stadiums, luxurious rec-centers, and other construction projects, all of which do practically nothing to improve the quality of education at public universities.
There is a great deal of talk about college debt becoming too high, but there are not very many people asking why college is getting so expensive. Does it really cost that much more to educate people now, in the age of the internet and free information, than it did 20 or 30 years ago? It doesn’t make sense to demand that taxpayers pay for college tuition when the costs of tuition are much higher than they need to be.
If the U.S. were to increase government involvement in higher education, it should do so in the form of increasing restrictions on colleges’ spending and tuition cost. People should not be pointing fingers at the government to fix the problem of student debt. Rather, they should be asking that public universities be held accountable for the money they spend and the education they provide.