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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Indebted to education

    One way to deal with a future problem is to leave it for the future. That’s what I did mentally in the 1980s, when college tuition was off on the inexorable rise that continues today. As a mother of young children, I looked at the startling numbers and optimistically assumed that costs were getting so far ahead of average-income families that there would be an outcry before the first bill ever came to our mailbox.

    I honestly, naively thought that families and institutions of higher learning would demand a public policy debate on (1) keeping college affordable and (2) revamping loan programs. After all, those steps would lead to multitudes of educated young adults who would enter the workforce, pay taxes, and contribute to progress and the common good.

    Spoken like a fond parent looking for a rosy future. Now here we are, with President Biden’s announcement last week that the government would forgive up to $10,000 in outstanding loan debt per student, and up to $20,000 for those who received Pell Grant loans because of their families’ low income.

    If the order survives court challenges, the forgiveness plan will benefit students who took out loans in the belief that Nothing Is More Important Than Education. A large percentage of those eligible managed to attend only a few courses and never earned a degree that would improve their lot in life, so a reduction is debt might really help some individuals. I am for that.

    What the plan won’t do is address the longstanding, root cause for indebtedness: Higher education has long been out of most Americans’ reach without borrowing.

    It’s interesting that in the same decades the college debt problem was burgeoning -- from $391 billion in 2005 to $811 billion in 2010 to $1.7 trillion last year -- the U.S. was struggling with the ballooning of health care costs. In both crises, institutions were providing essential services (health care or education) to individual consumers (patients or students) at prices that the customers could not afford. The ultimate outcome for health care was the Affordable Care Act, imperfect and not cheap, but a step that added access to care, helped stabilize finances for both providers and consumers, and improved public health.

    Nothing like that has addressed higher education costs. Complaints about unfairness in Biden’s plan to forgive some students’ debts after others already paid off their own miss the overriding benefit to all of us in a better educated populace. That’s the principle behind taxpayer-supported, universal K-12 education, which has been in effect since a time when grade 8 or grade 12 was all the schooling most Americans would get.

    That is not an endorsement for tuition-free college; that would ultimately put even more government into higher education, a model most Americans would not want. And no less than the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget is warning about the inflationary potential of the Biden debt forgiveness plan. Risks lurk, including the real possibility that colleges will take this as an opening to raise tuition at even greater rates.

    But the formulation of a plan is overdue, and the solutions are bound to be imperfect. If we wonder where all this spending is going to end, and what it will contribute to inflation, the forgiveness of $10,000 apiece to individuals won’t be one of the biggest factors.

    A much larger factor will be what happens next when responsible people who administer higher education have to decide whether this move invites the assumption that the government always steps in, and will again. There are good reasons for many of the hikes in the cost of education, including appropriate pay levels for faculty. But colleges and universities would do well to control spending and avoid the annual increase. A bottom-line corporation would do that if it had to, to stay afloat. The competition that drives higher education institutions to gussy up for the best and the best-heeled is not necessarily serving the greater good. And they have a commitment to the greater good; I know that because you hear it at every commencement ceremony.

    Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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