Total student debt hit an astronomical $1.48 trillion this year. The average graduate now leaves school with $40,000 in loans hanging over his head.
So is it really a surprise that Senator Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) won over millions of young people in 2016? After all, he campaigned on student-loan bailouts and “free college.” Many students desperate for an answer now support this agenda — in the hope of escaping crushing amounts in debt.
Yet government intervention is what created the higher-education bubble in the first place. One of the biggest factors behind skyrocketing tuition rates is the federal subsidization of student loans. Every dollar loaned out leads to an average 60-cent rise in tuition rates, as universities seize the opportunity to jack up prices in the face of heightened demand. That’s why the cost of public colleges has soared in recent years — it’s up 213 percent since 1988, adjusted for inflation. So any student who is serious about addressing the rising cost of college shouldn’t be looking to big government for relief, but rather to universities themselves.
Purdue University, for instance, is proof that colleges can be affordable — if they’re run as they should be.
Tuition hikes hit Purdue students hard between 2010 and 2012. But when former GOP governor Mitch Daniels took over as president in 2013, he implemented comprehensive reforms that slashed the cost of attendance. Daniels signaled his intentions from the onset, taking a salary $130,000 lower than that of his predecessor.
Daniels then took a hacksaw to the bloated bureaucracy on campus, cutting $8 million from the school’s operating budget. He also slashed the cost of room and board by 5 percent, trimmed the fat from the campus dining program to reduce prices by 10 percent, and struck a deal with Amazon that saved students 30 percent on textbooks. Yet Daniels didn’t just cut costs — he reduced classes, too. He introduced Purdue’s now-famous “Degree in 3” program, allowing liberal-arts students to graduate a year early and reducing the cost of college by 25 percent. This lets some students save as much as $20,000.
The result of these reforms? Under Daniels, Purdue has frozen tuition rates since 2013, students and their families have saved over $57 million, and student borrowing has drastically fallen. The total in-state cost of attendance is now just over $21,182 per year — an affordable amount compared with many other top public universities. And that figure doesn’t include financial aid or scholarships, so the bill many Purdue students actually pay is even lower.
Despite what critics predicted, Purdue’s reputation hasn’t suffered after the budget cuts. In fact, under Daniels’s leadership, the university has risen from 64th to 56th in the U.S. News & World Report rankings.
Although many Purdue students lean liberal, they’re having trouble denying the positive effects that fiscal conservatism is having on their campus — and their pocketbooks. When I talked with Bridgitte Buchanan, outreach director of the Purdue College Democrats, she told me she appreciated what Daniels has done to keep costs low for students, and she praised his Degree in 3 reform. Support for the university’s president is not partisan: Daniels is so popular on campus that students sometimes crowd around him at the dining halls and take pictures. It makes sense that conservatives would love him, but at least at Purdue, the Mitch Daniels model wins bipartisan support.
So in the face of an ever-expanding student-debt bubble, it’s time for this transformation to take place on the national level. Yet unfortunately, 77 percent of Millennials still support the “free college” proposals pushed by Democratic Socialists such as Senator Sanders. They ignore the alternative: reining in free-wheeling spending on campus and passing the savings on to students.
This is dismaying. Young people at colleges across the country are paying the price of administrative waste, bloated budgets, and frivolous expenditures. But they turn a blind eye to the solution, as do administrations across the nation. Students truly concerned about tuition rates and immense amounts of debt need to forget their infatuation with socialized higher education — and realize that fiscal conservatism is what will get us out of this mess.
Brad Polumbo is an assistant editor at Young Voices and a senior at UMass Amherst. His work has previously appeared in USA Today, National Review, and The Federalist. You can find him on Twitter @Brad_Polumbo.