Democrats Need to Decide: Is College a Right or a Commodity?

The US economy isn’t exactly working for most Americans. Wages for most of us are stubbornly stagnant, while college (the “surest ticket” to the middle class, according to our sitting president) has increased twelvefold over the past thirty years. This is a reason why a majority of our citizens still think we are in an economic recession.

That’s a problem, especially when our president’s entire theory of economic growth relies on expenditure from a robust middle class. I can attest that I’d be doing much more for the American economy if I didn’t have to siphon off student loan payments each month. That money would be much better served going into local businesses or my savings account.

I hope we can all agree that, in a more perfect union, it is not in the US government’s best interest to suck so much money out of the economy -especially when transactions occurring between individuals in our economy are at 40-year lows.

WHY IS OBAMA DEFENDING STUDENT LOANS, THEN?

The Obama administration seems to disagree. Recently, they released a report which concluded that the “$1.3 trillion in student debt is helping, not hurting, the US economy.” Talk about putting lipstick on a pig.

The report states, “It is education, not student debt, that drives the persistent differences in homeownership.” Ok. So if indeed it is the case that education “drives the persistent differences in homeownership,” then why would the US government want to make higher education incrediblyfinancially burdensome for Americans to attain? Am I missing something here?

According to the Wall Street Journal, the report also claims that “dropouts” who accumulate student debt but didn’t graduate with a degree “would still be suffering financially even without student debt, suggesting other factors are holding them down.” Talk about washing your hands of any responsibility.

Look, even if we didn’t put a ten-pound anchor around their neck, they’d still have drowned.”

This reasoning is, at best, pathetic and, at worst, disturbingly flippant. Especially considering that since Obama took office student debt has doubled. Must be legacy-setting time.

WE NEED TO ESCAPE OUR POLITICAL CONTEXT

Ridiculous conclusions and premises aside, the White House report perpetuates the Democrats’ core conflict when it comes to higher education; that is, should higher education be considered a fundamental right or a market commodity?

The Obama administration quite clearly thinks it should be the latter. The report’s language is littered with references about how college is “an investment” and that these debts eventually will “pay off.” While that is undeniably true, can someone please tell ameliorative Democrats like Mr. Obama that this is not an either-or proposition?

Don’t believe me? I’m going to take snippets of the report and replace “higher education” with “high school” to show the absurdity of understanding higher education as a market good.

High school is one of the most important investments individuals can make for themselves and for our country.”

“At the same time too many Americans feel that high school may be financially out of reach and are concerned about rising high school loan debt.”

“To help expand high school opportunity, the President has doubled investments in grand and scholarship aid through Pell grants and tax credits.”

High school remains an excellent investment overall, and the majority of dollars in the high school loan market continue to fund investments with large returns to student borrowers and the economy.”

See how unnatural this all sounds? When you remove your attitudes on education from the current context, higher education as a right doesn’t sound so farcical. Like college, free high school was once thought of as unnecessary. But we collectively came to understand that “the whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole people and be willing to bear the expenses of it.”

Those words come from John Adams, and while he was referring to free elementary schools (ghastly, I know), the time has now come to update this interpretation.

OK, BUT HOW DO WE PAY FOR IT?

If your first response to my argument is to reply, “Well, how would we afford that?”, let me refer you to an incredible take-down of Thomas Friedman on this very subject:

Our policy choices are only limited by our political imaginations. As a society, we have no problem rationalizing spending trillions of dollars on terrible wars, but bristle at the thought of offering college to all of our people.

That’s not rational. Nor is it good for building a strong 21st century economy.

So instead of pumping out bogus reports that aim to justify student loans as “helpful”, Democratic leaders like Barack Obama should instead spend their time changing the story around higher education and its purpose: transforming it from a market commodity into a right.

Hillary Clinton’s recent college affordability plan is doing just that (albeit gradually). And if Obama wants to stay relevant in this space, he should get on board stat, lest he be left behind.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.