Saturday, December 7, 2019

Is Free Tuition Just a Cruel Joke?

Free tuition for poor and needy students could turn out to be a cruel joke.

There is a lot of talk about "free college" and "student loan debt forgiveness" in the Democratic party.   Does this make any sense?  And what does it mean, exactly?

You see, the two are different things.  Most proposals for "free college" only offer to pay for tuition expenses, not for room and board and books and supplies and other day-to-day living expenses (beer, marijuana, spring break, condoms, etc.  OK, I kid - but not by much!).   For many students, these ancillary expenses can be as much as, if not far more than, tuition itself, particularly for a local community college or State school, where tuition is low, but living expenses are pretty fixed.

Consider a story recently in the media about how cruel "free tuition" can be.  In some States, they enacted this law to provide free tuition, but the catch is, you have to go to school full time.  And in order to support yourself, you have to work full time.  To make this work, you have to work 40 hours a week and take a full course load of classes - something nearly impossible to do, or anyway impossible for me.   I worked full-time and took a few classes, or went to school full-time and worked part-time.  But not both full load and full work!  That's why I spent 14 years in college.

For some reason, some folks - folks who had their way paid through school - think that going to college part-time or at night is some sort of scandal, or some sort of second-rate education.   But the courses at "night school" at S.U. and at GWU were the same courses attended by "day" students, and in fact, were mostly filled with full-time students.   There is no qualitative difference between the two.

Of course, the easy way to fix this is to offer students the possibility of going to school part-time while working full-time - as I did.  But for some reason (prejudice, ignorance, status) many legislators feel that only "full-time" students should get free tuition.  Or, perhaps that if they make it so hard to cash-in on this freebie, few will do it.

Offering "free" tuition to the poor is sort of a left-handed gift, if they can only access it by going to school full time - with no way to support themselves at the same time.  At some schools, it even gets worse - many Freshmen and even Sophomores are required to live "on campus" in student housing, so even if a student could cut expenses by living at home with parents, this option is not allowed (my brother, when he went to S.U. had to live in a dorm for the first two years before he could get off-campus housing).  Although my Dad commuted to Syracuse daily, they did not feel we lived close enough for him to be a "commuting" student.  Some schools, such as WSU, offer a "waiver" provided you can jump through some hoops, but the default mode is to live in the dorm.

So housing costs can be pretty high, and pretty inflexible.   Free tuition is one thing, but free housing?

Student loan forgiveness is a totally different beast.  Much of this student loan debt is not incurred for tuition expenses, but for living expenses, particularly for graduate degrees, where they open up the money taps full blast.  Forgiving student loan debt is, in a way, paying for college living expenses (and who knows what else) not just providing free tuition.

"Free tuition for all" is another aspect of this argument.  Some, such as Bernie Sanders, say that all tuition should be free, and send the bill to Uncle Sugar, please.   Neat idea, but is it really fair?   The rich kid, whose parents make a million dollars a year, gets free tuition.  The poor kid, who cannot afford to go to college because of the living expenses involved gets nothing.   Is this really providing an "opportunity" for the underprivileged?  Or is it just creating a boondoggle?   Or, like much of Mr. Sanders' thinking, it is just half-though-out policy gibberish that sounds appealing in the abstract, but falls apart under close scrutiny.

What's worse, when some, such as the ill-fated Mr. Buttigieg, point out that free tuition for "everyone" is not really "fair" people such as Sanders and Warren fight back, rather than considering how this would actually play out.  And that right there is why Trump will get re-elected.  The Democrats seem to believe that in order to win, you have to stake out a policy position and never, ever, change your mind or adjust it, as that would be seen as "waffling".   It is a shitty way to govern.

Mayor Pete also points out that folks who decide to work in the trades - and eschew college - are unfairly treated under this plan.   They pay taxes, as working people, essentially subsidizing the education of the person who will one day be their boss.  Does that even make any sense?

Worse yet, it perpetuates this mythology that everyone who goes to college makes more money than those who do not and what's more we can make everyone richer by sending them to college.  The reality is, not everyone who graduates from college makes more money than those who do not - the guy who becomes an HVAC tech and works hard for six years has a head start on the art history major who borrows $100,000 for a masters degree.   Down the road, the HVAC tech might end up owning his own air conditioning company whereas the art history major works at Starbucks as a barista.   It could happen - and does, with regularity.

Worse yet, are the unfortunate folks who go to college and then drop out.  They incur all this debt, and have nothing to show for it.  Yet, at many schools, this is what happens to up to 1/3 of students - and as happened to me.   I was able to continue my studies, others are not.  And no doubt, if tuition is "free" then a lot of colleges will encourage people to go to college, even if they would be better off doing something else.   Government intervention in markets creates unintended consequences.

Maybe a better idea would be to screen applicants and figure out which ones have the best shot at success.  If they need money to go to college, they can apply for money for tuition as well as housing expenses.  We could call this a "grant" or maybe "scholarship" or something.   Yea, I know, it is a crazy idea, but it just might work!   Oh, wait, we are already doing just that.

Perhaps rather than throwing out what we have, we can work with it and improve on an existing system that could be made better.  Maybe instead of throwing money at people in the form of free tuition, which would be a windfall for the wealthy and encourage people who have no business in college of going, instead we could increase scholarship dollars to those really in need who can demonstrate they have the intelligence to succeed in college.

Because "free tuition" by itself is something of a cruel joke for the poor, if they have to work full-time to support themselves while in college.  

That, and it would bankrupt the country and provide yet another incentive for colleges and universities to keep raising tuition at three times the rate of inflation.