The Empty-Headedness of the Million Student March

By Alex Chediak Published on November 18, 2015

Amidst the recent potpourri of petulant pouting on college campuses around the country, in “safe spaces” and elsewhere, you’ll be forgiven if you missed the news of a Million Student March. On November 12, these student marchers took to their respective campuses and communities with three specific demands:

1.Tuition-Free Public College

2. Cancellation of All Student Debt

3. $15 Minimum Wage for All Campus Workers

Their arguments were not new. As the group’s website reads: “The United States is the richest country in the world, yet students have to take on crippling debt in order to get a college education.” In other words, if the rich would only pay their fair share, students could attend college for free. After all, public high school is already free. If college is now essential for accessing the jobs of tomorrow, why not put that on the public coffers too?

Free Public College?

Back in January, President Obama’s office put a price tag of $60 billion over a decade on the President’s plan to provide millions of students with two years of free community college. (It would not have helped everyone; you’d have to be enrolled at least half-time and maintain a GPA of 2.5 or higher.) But to eliminate undergraduate tuition entirely at all of our public four-year colleges and universities? Senator Sanders’ campaign gives that a price tag of $70 billion per year (more than ten times higher than Obama’s proposal). The money would ostensibly come from raising tax rates on the wealthy.

Suppose the funds were raised in this manner — though “soak the rich” arguments fail to account for the skill of accountants or for the fact that the rich have the freedom to skip town (or the country). Would making college free make it less expensive? The argument seems to be that if Uncle Sam holds the purse strings it can force colleges to control their costs. But is that how things have worked out in the K-12 space? On the contrary, bloated bureaucracies and wasteful spending are the hallmarks of monopoly power and a captive market. After all, it’s hard to compete with free. So students would flock to the free public schools, even as per capita costs increase, sticking Uncle Sam with an ever-increasing bill for an ever-expanding number of students. Note that both Obama’s and Sanders’ price tags appear to be based on current enrollment, not on the increased enrollment that would inevitably result from making college free.

What about student performance? Would free college lead to greater success rates? Currently, at two-year colleges, only 31 percent of first-time, full-time students graduate within three years. At four-year public colleges, the six-year graduation rate is about 57 percent. If these dismal figures could be dramatically improved, perhaps it’d be worth the cost. But here’s the thing: According to the College Board, students from families whose annual income is less than $65,000 already receive enough grant aid to cover tuition, fees, and some of their other expenses at public two-year colleges. Low graduation rates are more likely a function of poor preparation (lack of academic rigor in high school) and inadequate study skills.

Cancel All Student Debt?

Cancelling all student debt would cost about $1.2-1.3 trillion. Where would this money come from? The 1 percent, as student organizer Keely Mullen suggested to Neil Cavuto? The Tax Policy Center (a joint project of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institute) estimates that the top 1 percent consists of some 1.13 million households earning an average of $2.1 million. After factoring in deductions and exemptions, this group currently has an average federal tax rate of 33.4 percent. Raise that figure to 45 percent and you’d bring in an extra $276 billion into the federal government’s coffers. Raise the average tax rate on the top 2-5 percent of earners (those making $400,000 per year or more) from the current 25 percent figure to 35 percent and you get another $176 billion. Even if you could get the mega-wealthy to actually pay these vastly increased rates, you’re still not even half way there.

Plus, what message would bailing out today’s graduates send to those who worked crazy hours during college to keep their debt to an absolute minimum? Or who worked two jobs after graduating so they could pay off their loans in five to ten years? Had they just let their debt accumulate, Uncle Sam would have swooped in to save the day. Those who benefit most from a massive debt cancellation deal are those who were most careless in their debt financing decisions. (The rest are more likely to be making steady progress on paying down their principle, especially with the expansion of income-based repayment options.)

Campus Minimum Wage of $15/hr?

Finally, what about a $15/hr minimum wage for campus workers? Since budgets for hiring campus workers are unlikely to grow by an equal amount, a higher minimum wage simply means that campuses would have to make do with fewer workers (and/or fewer paid hours for those workers). That includes fewer student workers. So fewer undergraduate lab assistants, graders, and tutors. Fewer students with access to that first academic job which sparks their love for scholarship and intellectual achievement, propelling their career to greater heights (as Dr. Ben Carson recently recounted). And more students frustrated with the difficulty of finding work and paying their bills.

The Real Solution

Students taking on excessive debt to get through college need a better way. But there truly is no such thing as a free lunch (or free college). The solution is more, not less, personal responsibility. By shopping for value when selecting a college, by choosing a major with reasonable job prospects, by limiting borrowing based on realistic, informed earning prospects, by starting college with adequate preparation and personal discipline, and by working hard and smart during college, it’s still possible to get a quality education without going broke.


Alex Chediak’s book Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke (Zondervan, 2015) helps students make informed decisions about how to pay less for college, earn more during college, and set themselves up for financial independence after college. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.




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