For the past few years, we’ve seen the mounting popularity of candidates who describe themselves as “Democratic Socialists.”
These candidates are popular among young people (particularly students) and often repeat a similar refrain: Socialized or single-payer health care, higher taxes for the upper-income brackets, and tuition-free college education.
As an undergraduate senior, I see plenty of peers who support these policies, marketed as the answer to everything they want. That’s scary. But the scarier problem? They are willing to support an institution capable of taking everything they have.
In some respects, it is not completely illogical for the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed college student to rationalize supporting policies that would remove their educational debt, thereby allowing them a degree of greater economic freedom to pursue their aspirations.
The issue is: It doesn’t.
Many students fear the loan payments that kick in six months after graduation. With tuition-free college, what they’d get instead is a tax bill to relieve the debt of those next in line. The difference, as any financial advisor would tell you, is that while a period of tight budgeting can pay off your loans, the tax bill comes for the rest of your life, and it seems there is never enough for Uncle Sam.
So, instead of campaigning to make things “free,” we should instead arm our students with financial literacy and change the culture concerning college education. We need to stop conflating “college” and “education” and treat universities for what they are: businesses.
In the same way that we shop for cars, we need to shop for colleges. The automobile industry is famous for competing over which make and model has the best efficiency and safety, or what brand has the most attractive features. In a similar way, universities should compete over the best job placement with the least amount of time committed, or with the most attractive environment for students.
Why would I purchase the fully loaded Suburban when my lifestyle requires no more than a hatchback? Why would I pay $250,000 for a degree when one at a fourth of the cost would do the trick? Likewise, not everyone needs to purchase the 4-year degree when a vocational and less-expensive certificate will suffice.
We need to teach our students to think of themselves less as “individualistic free-thinkers” and more as consumers in a marketplace. In the same way that we compare models and features, we should teach students to recognize when they are over-paying. Hundreds of thousands of students per year are being thrown into the real world without any inclination of how to pay taxes, pay off debt (without incurring more), save, budget, invest, apply for mortgages — and the list goes on.
Not only should universities drill this into the minds of students, but it is imperative that the K-12 education system adopts this as well. Students with a GED who don’t know whether to pursue the 4-year degree or stick with a job training program still need to know how to navigate the financial certainties of life, because they will come.
We must treat education as the market that it is. It has been reported in the past few weeks that some private universities are beginning to match public tuition for deserving students. This is a perfect example of market competition and correction.
We have a growing gap between the rich and poor because we are allowing ourselves to think there is only the college education or no education. Why else is there a shortage of labor for trades and mid-level jobs one could obtain debt-free which pay more than some entry-level positions available to the indebted college graduate?
Would the Democratic Socialist platform want you to see the hard facts when then chips are down? Of course not. Why would they want you to see the money you’ve spent when it’s much easier for them to spend it for you in exchange for an idealist’s promise of debt-free education?
Either way, as I make my next move in the game of life, I know I will be better off for having skin in the game without an empty promise for “free” education.
Adam Skrzecz is a senior studying Political Science and History at North Carolina State University. He is from Greensboro.
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