Most of America’s private colleges and universities could be forced to shut down if former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president and achieves his stated goal of eliminating public college tuition for students with annual family incomes under $125,000.
In addition to hitting taxpayers with a bill that could total more than $1 trillion over 10 years, the Biden plan would prompt many students who would otherwise attend private colleges and universities — both secular and religiously affiliated — to go to public schools instead.
The cost of private higher education already far exceeds tuition at public colleges. Eliminating public college tuition entirely for the estimated 80 percent of U.S. students who would qualify based on family income under the Biden plan would widen the gap in costs between private and public colleges.
Biden also wants to provide two years of tuition-free community college, including for so-called “Dreamers” — immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as minors. Community college graduates can transfer to four-year colleges to earn a bachelor’s degree.
The Biden plan wouldn’t sound the death knell for all private colleges and universities. Students in many households earning more than $125,000 wouldn’t receive much in government aid, putting private colleges on more equal ground with public schools. And the most elite private schools – such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stanford – would continue to attract students based on their prestigious names and reputations.
But what about the more than 1,000 other private schools, including many colleges with religious affiliations? Many of these schools are already struggling to survive. More surely would have to shut their doors under the Biden plan.
Setting aside the major issue of whether Uncle Sam can afford to pay tuition for millions of students and take on that responsibility, a far better way of distributing federal student aid would be to award students scholarships or loans to use at any accredited college, university or job training program they want — public or private — based on family income and academic achievement.
Giving students the freedom to choose their higher education institution without being penalized for picking a private option or a job training program would ensure that private and public institutions are competing in a fairer marketplace. Students wouldn’t be penalized for choosing to go to a private secular or religious college — institutions Biden seems determined to destroy – or for choosing to pursue a skilled trade.
Private higher education has a rich history in the U.S., has pioneered many innovations and has educated students who have gone on to make major contributions to our country. In addition, private colleges have provided competition to public colleges that has resulted in the public schools improving their performance to attract students.
If the Biden plan becomes a reality, some private colleges might lobby to become public schools. But the number that would likely be able to achieve public college status is small. In addition, religious colleges would never be able to make the transition without completely jettisoning their religious affiliations.
Besides all these harmful provisions, Biden’s plan would provide far-reaching student debt programs promising loan “forgiveness.” This is just another way of saying that Biden wants to shift costs from those who incurred them to those who didn’t, including middle-income taxpayers.
Biden also wants to dramatically increase government spending for higher education institutions, on top of all these other spending plans – and, as usual, he has no way to pay for these additional costs.
Even though Biden won’t admit it, the only way to “pay” for his education plan would be to impose big tax increases on the American people or print money and rack up more debt.
Biden’s plan would be a complete train wreck. Not only would it likely destroy at least several hundred private secular and religious colleges by using the government to unfairly drive them out of business. The plan would also do nothing to deal with the underlying reason college has become so expensive.
The truth is that college costs have skyrocketed much faster than the rate of inflation for decades because many of the market forces that normally drive down costs have already been gutted by the federal government.
The federal government makes it too easy for students to borrow virtually any amount of money to pay massive amounts for college tuition, and room and board.
Because students can borrow $50,000, $60,000 or more per year to pay for college expenses, schools have no reason to keep costs down. College officials know students will pay, because government will provide students and/or their parents with low-interest loans — including to families who have no business amassing large student debt loads.
As a result, colleges are slow to innovate and look for ways to drive costs down. At a time when technology and the high-speed Internet should be making college more affordable than ever, college has never been more expensive. This is a direct result of the federal government’s involvement. The Biden plan would only make the problem worse.
Providing students with access to free-tuition college degrees would also encourage many people to waste tens of thousands of dollars on room and board and lose more money by staying out of the workforce while attending school — when they would have been better off skipping college.
While high schools and colleges have insisted for many years that a four-year college degree is needed by just about everyone who wants to earn a decent income, this simply isn’t true.
Many electricians, welders, plumbers, carpenters and workers in the oil and natural gas industry — to cite just a few examples — can earn middle-class incomes without a bachelor’s degree. And many college classes do little to prepare students for jobs in the real world.
In addition, some of the richest people in America were college dropouts, including Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell and the late Apple founder Steve Jobs.
It might not be politically correct to say it, but the truth is that hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions of the students who attend U.S. colleges every year would likely be better off saving their money and gaining job experience instead. For many, college is a waste of money and not the best way to obtain long-term wealth.
Chris Talgo is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute.