Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that he’s giving an additional $1.8 billion to Johns Hopkins University. This comes on top of $1.5 billion that he’s given over the years. And it’s great. Great that he can do so. Great that he chooses to do so, as this is his money and this is his choice of what to do with it.
But as much as he deserves the kudos he seeks by making a big splash of his generosity, does his rationale bear up to scrutiny?
Here’s a simple idea I bet most Americans agree with: No qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account. Yet it happens all the time.
When colleges review applications, all but a few consider a student’s ability to pay. As a result, high-achieving applicants from low- and middle-income families are routinely denied seats that are saved for students whose families have deeper pockets. This hurts the son of a farmer in Nebraska as much as the daughter of a working mother in Detroit.
Much as discussion of mass incarceration obsesses over the non-violent first-time drug offender who received a life sentence, obsession about college attendance, and its “opening the door” to a life of middle class security and happiness, talks about the “high-achieving applicants from low- and middle-income families.” While both exist to some extent, neither reflects the norm.
Far more goes into being accepted as a student at a selective college than money, and far more precludes students from acceptance, and just as importantly, graduation, than lack of money. All the nasty details, from board scores to inadequate public school educations, from getting applications in on time to doing the work of a student at college level, to valuing higher education sufficiently to suffer the sacrifices that are demanded, go with the need for money.
And then there’s the question of why colleges cost what they do, tuition increasing exponentially compared to cost of living, and more importantly, income. But throwing money at a problem is something easier, and more concrete, than fixing the myriad problems creating the problem.
And then there’s the backside, throwing good money after bad.
To be clear, student debt is a real problem. But it’s a complicated problem. Most people struggling to pay off their debts are not graduates of four-year colleges. They are instead non-graduates — people who attended college (often a for-profit college) but never received a degree. They have the worst of both worlds: debt and no degree.
Getting in is only the first step of the process. Once accomplished, then what? Pick a degree, for one. What are the chances that philosophy degree is going to land you a decent job? If you come from a poor family, pragmatic choices matter. But whether the degree is gender studies or electrical engineering, you have to earn it. Go to classes. Pass finals. Graduate.
Most graduates of four-year colleges, by contrast, are doing just fine. I know you’ve probably read stories about liberal-arts college graduates who ran up enormous debts and now can’t find decent work. But they are the rare exceptions.
There are no cites to support the “rare exceptions” claim, and I suspect many would argue that while they may not be the majority, they aren’t rare exceptions either. There are a lot of college grads who struggle to find decent jobs, who are underemployed, working outside their chosen field, working less than 35 hours per week because their employers don’t want to pay for the required health care for a full-time employee.
The latest grand solution, promoted by the forces of progress based upon some fuzzy 1950s memory of how a college diploma guaranteed you a stable middle-class life and a corner office, is universal student debt cancellation.
One idea that’s started making the rounds is the elimination of all student debt. Major publications have published columns promoting the idea. Almost 20 House Democrats have signed on to a bill — written by Jared Polis, Colorado’s governor-elect — that would cancel all debt. It’s also a priority for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the high-profile incoming House member from the Bronx.
This is the back-end solution to Bloomberg’s front end solution, cancel the debt accrued to pay the ridiculously high tuition costs that build glorious structures and pay Title IX administrators’ salaries. If you, or your child, is drowning under college debt, this might seem like a good idea because it would help you personally. Enlightened self-interest never goes out of style, but it’s even better when it can be chalked up to social justice while it saves you money.
The allure is clear enough. Americans now hold about $1.4 trillion in student debt. Eliminating it seems like the kind of bold, progressive idea that Democrats should embrace.
David Leonhardt notes one tiny flaw in the plan.
The fatal flaw of universal student-debt cancellation is that it’s not, in fact, progressive. It mostly benefits the upper middle class. “Education debt,” as Sandy Baum and Victoria Lee of the Urban Institute have written, “is disproportionately concentrated among the well-off.” The highest-earning quarter of the population holds about half of all student debt, according to Baum and Lee. Which means that universal student debt cancellation would be a giant welfare program for the bourgeoisie.
In the world of progressives, “bourgeois” is a dirty word. Its values, hard work, sacrifice, family, make it hard to chalk every problem up to their true social justice causes, racism and sexism. If only someone could figure out how to monetize misery and blaming.
But there is another flaw that doesn’t bear upon Leonhardt’s ideological antipathy toward the bourgeoisie, or as he calls them, the “well-off” who go to work every day in jobs that aren’t necessarily fulfilling to put food on their table and pay off the mortgage. There is no such thing as “free” college, but merely college that’s free for one and paid for by another.
One more freebie, added to the many other dreams of Utopia, that will be paid for by taxing the super-rich in the imaginations of the unduly passionate, which can magically get taxed 100 times over while they stick around to be taxed again, because what billionaire can’t figure out how to prevent taxes from swallowing his wealth or buy a nice little condo in a tax haven to avoid the good intentions of the “woke and broke”?
Except the taxes get paid by the nice middle-class folks, who ironically are the same ones who paid for their children’s college tuition out of pocket so they could give their kids the gift of an education without the burden of crippling debt. And now they can pay for the social justice fantasy tuition again.
It’s wonderful that there are wealthy people like Bloomberg, and others, who will use their vast wealth for purposes they feel are worthy. And it may be true that no deserving student should be denied an education for lack of ability to pay. But money is only one piece of the complex puzzle, and throwing it at people who won’t graduate, or will graduate but never find a decent job, is not a solution or money well spent.
Taking Bloomberg’s money is fine because he gives it willingly, but taking it from working people’s taxes to fund this fantasy solution is another matter. It’s not whether you’re willing to pay for it, but that you’re happy to spend other people’s money on it. They worked hard to get into college, through college, graduate, get jobs and provide for their family. This isn’t your money to throw at your social justice fantasies. Donate your own, like Bloomberg, but keep your mitts off the bourgeoisie’s money. They work hard for theirs.