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Steve Bakke

Steve Bakke

We’re confused about something here in America. We can’t decide whether certain things are “rights” — as in “constitutional rights.” For example, is college education something we citizens should be guaranteed, and should it be provided for free? Or, is it enough for it to be available for us to pursue?

I argue it’s something we should want to work for, but it should be within our reach economically. Unfortunately, costs are skyrocketing. Is that a measure of value, or does it point to something else?

The cost of college education has been escalating well beyond that for other goods and services. According to Forbes, college costs in the U.S. have increased almost eight times faster than wages. The National Center for Education Statistics tells us the average for all four-year post-secondary institutions is almost $105,000 for four years, including tuition, fees, room and board. There are many reasons for this, with administrative costs a major contributor. The ratio of college administrators to instructors has doubled over the period 1987 through 2012. It now stands at 2:1. That doesn’t reflect cost consciousness.

With college costs high and rising, student loan debt has also skyrocketed, now exceeding $1.5 trillion. That’s nearly as much as auto loans and credit card debt combined. Democrat presidential wannabes are complicating the situation with their insistence free college is a “constitutional right.” The idea free education is an unalienable right can’t be traced to the Founders. Those rights simply exist — you can’t purchase them. Introducing this new concept to the education debate, already burdened with too many difficult problems, makes fixing those problems even more challenging.

After establishing their intention to provide free college these ambitious progressives had another idea. Those folks carrying huge college debt were undoubtedly asking, “What do I get?” The always pander-ready Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar reacted by proclaiming: “Let’s also forgive existing education loans.” And that’s where we are now, with most of the presidential candidates jumping on board in some fashion. Setting aside many philosophical, practical and constitutional arguments against these giveaways, let’s look at just one concern, i.e., the effect of this proposal on the future of already high college costs. These freebie education policies would remove any semblance of free market competition for post-secondary education.

You might suggest there isn’t a free marketplace right now, and I agree that’s at least partially correct. With government loan underwriting standards more generous than commercially available loans, government student loans represent “easy money” for colleges and universities. And Uncle Sam, backed by taxpayer guarantees, would be seen sitting on a seemingly unlimited stash of education funds. Offering free college to all citizens and forgiving loans would remove any remaining motivation for colleges and universities to hold down costs.

There would be relatively little expectation of push-back, resulting in a real incentive for colleges to keep increasing prices. Trevor Thomas was spot on when he stated in American Thinker: “If you think a college education is expensive now, just wait until it’s ‘free.’”

Skyrocketing costs will remain, and someone will have to pay those bills.

Let’s agree quality education is a very good thing and something to be sought after. Let’s also agree that acquiring a quality education requires great effort, isn’t cheap and certainly can never be free. Contrary to what progressives believe, declaring free college is a “right” doesn’t lessen the pain or even reduce the problem. Declaring it free not only ignores the reality that nothing is free, it also creates a problem that feeds on itself.

We all know competition helps control costs, but that only happens if markets are free. Free markets can’t exist without the ultimate consumer having some interest in, and influence over, what is being paid for that product. And that won’t happen unless the government stays out of it.

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Steve Bakke is a Courier subscriber living in Fort Myers, Fla. He is a retired CPA and commercial finance executive.

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