President Biden’s sweeping higher education agenda has crashed into reality. His $2.9 trillion in proposals for “free” community college and student debt forgiveness aren’t going anywhere. But this would be a poor moment for conservative gloating.
Sure, the hysteria about student debt is wildly overstated and community college is already functionally free for low-income students. But, for all that, college affordability is a real issue and deserving of attention. College degrees have enormous financial and social benefits and are a prerequisite for all manner of good jobs. This means there’s a lot of incentive to attend college. It seems obviously appropriate that those who benefit from college bear some responsibility in paying a reasonable, manageable amount for an extraordinarily valuable experience. At the same time, college debt can be a crushing burden for some, especially for those who don’t complete a degree.
One response to all this is to ask whether college degrees should play such an essential role or whether they constitute an inappropriate, constitutionally suspect hiring test erected and maintained by the college-industrial complex. While there’s an obvious job-related rationale for an employer requiring an aspiring nurse to hold a nursing degree, it’s tough to make the case that would-be rental car desk clerks must first buy a bachelor’s degree. It’s an important point that deserves a lot more attention than it gets.
More prosaically, though, there are plenty of practical solutions that can be pursued right now and that don’t entail new federal outlays. Across the land, there are communities, colleges, states, and private ventures working to make college more affordable and less risky, while dodging the perverse incentives of loan forgiveness and a federal “free college” program. These localized initiatives have many advantages, including the reality that they can be carefully tailored and ensure that aid is coupled with structured support and reciprocal responsibility.