Education

Everything about Bernie’s Town-Hall Exchange on Student Debt Was Wrong 

Participants protest high student loan burdens in Ashland, Ore., July 4, 2015. (Randall Mikkelsen/Reuters)
It is not the job of the government to pay for someone else’s mistake.

During Monday night’s CNN town hall, a woman named Beverly asked Senator Bernie Sanders how he planned to pay for her outrageous amount of student debt.

“This May I will be graduating from law school with over $250,000 in student loan debt — the majority from my undergraduate education,” Beverly said. “What is your plan for students like me with student loan debt and how do you plan to pay for it?”

Bernie replied, in part, by saying that what Beverly had “just described is insane,” and I agree with him on that much — I just think that it’s “insane” for an entirely different reason than he does.

Sanders, of course, sees Beverly as an innocent victim of a too-limited government and thinks it’s “insane” that our current system would put her in this position. I, however, think that what’s “insane” is her attitude of having complete immunity from her own choices, given the absolute fact that Beverly is the one responsible for putting herself in this situation.

First things first: Just what kind of undergraduate education costs nearly $250,000? I mean, it isn’t just that I myself am not privileged enough to have received an education like that, but I’m actually not even privileged enough to have known that such a thing even existed.

Personally, I chose my own undergraduate institution in large part because the scholarship options made it affordable for me to attend. Make no mistake: The financial feasibility of each school’s cost was a major part of making my decision, as it was for almost everyone I knew.

Beverly, of course, had the opportunity to consider the exact same thing that we all did. She just simply chose not to, which is what makes it so absurd that she had the guts to ask Sanders how he would “plan to pay for” her mistake.

Even worse? Beverly wasn’t even really asking Sanders to pay for anything at all. Rather, what she really meant by her question was: “How do you plan to force others to pay?”

This is especially asinine considering the fact that, among those people would be many — myself included, more on that here and here — whom Sanders would be able to take from only because they had made smarter choices (and/or more sacrifices) than Beverly did when weighing the cost–benefit of a continued education. In other words? The main reason some of the people who’d be forced to pay would be able to do so would be because they were responsible.

Unfortunately, her attitude isn’t hers alone. Far from it: The way that Beverly dismisses the idea that she should have to actually face the consequences of her own decisions is the sort of thing that’s becoming quite common. Sanders’s popularity is surging, and that’s because a huge number of people in this country believe that it’s the government’s job to solve all the problems that individuals have themselves created.

Earth to those guys: Just because you have a problem, it does not automatically follow that it is therefore the government’s job to solve it. It actually doesn’t even follow that the government would be the best at solving it — and problems surrounding the cost of higher education may be one of the best examples of a time when it wouldn’t be.

I’m thinking, of course, of the Bennett Hypothesis — which theorizes that financial aid from the government actually raises the cost of education. For example, consider this from Forbes in 2015:

A new staff report by David Lucca, Taylor Nadauld, and Karen Shen of the New York Federal Reserve Bank goes even further, suggesting the average tuition increase associated with expansion of student loans is much larger — in some cases 65 cents per dollar, and that the impact is considerable (55 cents per dollar) with Pell Grants as well.

This report is hardly the only instance where we’ve seen this kind of correlation. In fact, a 2017 paper from the free-market Mercatus Center at George Mason University actually found that the direct correlation between increases in federal aid and increases in tuition rates were “in some cases approaching dollar-for-dollar.”

What’s more, there is also evidence that the increasing prevalence of college degrees has made them less valuable than they used to be. A 2019 piece in Business Insider, for example, cites a figure from the New York Fed: “One-third of college graduates are underemployed and 13% are in a low-paying job.”

One of Sanders’s favorite talking points is to shame the United States for not making spending on higher education as much of a priority as it is in other developed nations. There’s just one problem: According to a Mises Institute study released last year, we actually spend more (as a percentage of GDP) on higher education than many of the countries that do offer it for free — including some of the very countries that Sanders routinely mentions, such as Germany.

(A 2018 piece from The Atlantic gives some explanation as to why. For example: We tend to spend far more on things such as on-campus housing and “nonteaching staff,” such as “armies of fund-raisers, athletic staff, lawyers, admissions and financial-aid officers, diversity-and-inclusion managers, building-operations and maintenance staff, security personnel, transportation workers, and food-service workers.”)

In short? Yes, Beverly’s story is “insane” — but that’s because it’s nuts to hear of anyone having actually made such a foolish decision, and then expecting other people to have to pay for her error in judgment.

The bottom line is this: It is not, in a country that was founded on the values of individual liberty and personal responsibility, the job of the government (read: completely uninvolved taxpayers) to pay for someone else’s mistake. What’s more, people have got to stop blindly accepting Sanders’s claim that more government involvement in this problem is what would make things better — because there is far too much evidence suggesting that that simply isn’t true.

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