As the number of Democrats running in the pres­i­dential primary approaches the size of a small football team, their spe­cific policy pro­posals on every issue become even more critical in deter­mining who gets the Demo­c­ratic nom­i­nation. One such pro­posal that has gained attention, par­tic­u­larly in the college-aged pro­gressive base, is the idea of tuition-free college and student loan can­cel­lation. While Senator Bernie Sanders, I‑VT, has led the way since his 2016 pres­i­dential run, Sen­ators Cory Booker, D‑N.J., Kamala Harris, D‑Calif., and Eliz­abeth Warren, D‑Mass., have been quick to follow suit with their own support of “college for all.” While obvi­ously appealing to young people who carry tens of thou­sands of dollars in student loan debt, such policies would exac­erbate the existing student loan bubble and create more problems than solu­tions. We must avoid this siren song at all costs. 

A college edu­cation, just like a house or a car, is an investment that requires a loan to pur­chase. Such simple trans­ac­tions, while expensive, make it pos­sible for the average person to live at a higher standard of living than would oth­erwise be pos­sible in a world without credit. Student loans should be no dif­ferent. Unfor­tu­nately, however, the policies of well-meaning politi­cians have cor­rupted the eco­nomic cal­culus and led to a pattern of grad­uates weighed down by moun­tains of student loan debt and unmar­ketable degrees. Fur­thermore, student loans carry a more sub­stantial risk for lenders because a college degree cannot be repos­sessed like a physical com­modity such as a house or car. Politi­cians have obfus­cated his simple eco­nomic fact, however, by the doc­trine of fairness popular amongst those on the eco­nomic and political Left. 

This phe­nomenon, while unin­tended, is not complex. Over the last few decades, Democrats and Repub­licans alike have expanded federal student loans to allow more young people to attend uni­versity. According to the National Center for Edu­cation Sta­tistics, nearly 20 million stu­dents enrolled in American col­leges and uni­ver­sities last fall com­pared to the little more than 15 million who enrolled in the fall of 2000, an increase dis­pro­por­tionate to the rate of pop­u­lation growth. This is not the whole story, however. The average graduate now leaves their under­graduate insti­tution with a debt of $37,172, according to Josh Mitchell of the Wall Street Journal, an amount more than twice the average college debt in 2002 according to CNN Money. While some may say this is the nec­essary tradeoff for a better future, 43 percent of recent college grad­uates report under­em­ployment (working a job that does not require their college degree) in their first job out of college, and of those, two-thirds report still being under­em­ployed five years after grad­u­ation according to a 2018 report by the Burning Glass and Strada Institute. 

By extending loans to essen­tially all appli­cants, the federal gov­ernment increased the demand for a college edu­cation, in part con­tributing to con­tin­ually rising tuition prices. With more stu­dents willing and able to pay tuition thanks to tax­payer-funded loans, col­leges raise prices. Rather than eval­u­ating the long-term costs of loan repayment versus future earning potential, stu­dents are simply attending college because they have been told that is a nec­essary step towards pro­fes­sional success. Even worse, once stu­dents matric­ulate they are told to follow their pas­sions and study what interests them rather than what they can use to earn money and repay their loans. Long gone are the days of careful cal­cu­lation of com­pound interest pay­ments used to determine whether a college edu­cation is the correct path. Edu­cation should be about much more than tech­nical training with the sole purpose of earning a large salary, but going tens of thou­sands of dollars into debt to study an unmar­ketable dis­ci­pline is a luxury most people cannot afford. 

The college system is already unsus­tainable system and the pro­posals of current Demo­c­ratic pres­i­dential can­di­dates threaten to make it even worse. While the propo­si­tions of tuition-free college and loan for­giveness by those such as Sens. Sanders, Booker, Harris, and Warren are extremely popular with young voters, they are dis­as­trous. Just like the 2008 bank bailouts, student loan can­cel­lation and free college would create an enormous moral hazard problem. Rather than holding stu­dents accountable for their deci­sions and expen­di­tures, these pro­posals would allow stu­dents to waste real resources on ques­tionable degrees. What is more, the resources used to finance the increase in stu­dents loans — whether through federal aid or private com­panies — are often the savings of average Amer­icans, not the excess profits of massive banking con­glom­erates. Fur­thermore, these large debts often leave grad­uates in a worse position than they started as they work a job which does not neces­sitate a college degree. 

The real problem is the sky­rock­eting cost of college, not access to loans. If people demon­strate intel­li­gence and hard work throughout high school, they will be able to get a private loan to pay for under­graduate years. And they will choose to take this loan only if they foresee their degrees paying off their loans. Refusing to hold stu­dents respon­sible for how they invest others’ money will only lead to lower quality of edu­cation and worse graduate out­comes. Common sense tells us that you play dif­fer­ently with house money than you do with your own. Unfor­tu­nately, common sense is some­thing the current Demo­c­ratic primary field lacks. Perhaps a refresher of their under­graduate eco­nomics course would help, and why not? The loans cer­tainly are available.