For those keeping track at home, the score is $500 billion to $1.35 billion.
That’s the amount of college debt President Biden announced he is eliminating vs. the amount of money the federal government spent on career and technical education state grants for training in 2021. With the stroke of a pen, nearly 375 years’ worth of skills training funds are going to the university sector.
My frustration stems from points made in my September column about the government’s investment gap between four-year universities and worker training and our nation’s skewed prioritization of one path above all others. As a country, we spend an astoundingly large amount of money sending kids to college—many of whom are cajoled into it through peer, parental and/or societal pressure. And many students don’t finish or graduate and are unable to find fruitful, desired work based on their fields of study. Roughly 35% of 18-year-olds eventually will get a college degree; 65% won’t. But we spend 100 times more to help the 35% with their careers.
Our nation and government promote the college path rather than cultivating a culture where young people are shown trades and other professions where they can have successful careers without all the debt and years of struggling to fit a square young peg into a round educational hole.
Instead of trying to correct these underlying issues—let alone addressing the skyrocketing cost of college—President Biden doubled down on the status quo with his policy announcement, poured sugar into an educational cavity and said, in essence: “Stop brushing your teeth.”
Skills training doesn’t require the same level of investment as universities, and not all 65% of noncollege graduates would benefit from increased funding, but even a relatively small increase would be a gamechanger in a world where we can’t find enough construction workers, truck drivers, contractors, builders, mechanics and other workers who build and make things.
An opinion piece in The New York Times praised the president’s move but conceded: “The plan also could encourage colleges to raise tuition even faster than they already are. Schools could try to persuade borrowers to take on as much debt as possible to cover higher tuition with the belief the federal government would help pay it back.”
Even Larry Summers, a past president of Harvard University(!) and former treasury secretary under President Obama, has concerns. Following Biden’s announcement, Summers stated: “Every dollar spent on student loan relief is a dollar that could have gone to support those who don’t get the opportunity to go to college.”
Many Democratic party officials echoed that sentiment, but Congressman Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said it best: “While there’s no doubt that a college education should be about opening opportunities, waiving debt for those already on a trajectory to financial security sends the wrong message to the millions of Ohioans without a degree working just as hard to make ends meet.”
The Wall Street Journal said the president’s move “makes chumps of Congress and every American who repaid loans or didn’t go to college. … Worse than the cost is the moral hazard and awful precedent this sets. Those who will pay for this write-off are the tens of millions of Americans who didn’t go to college, or repaid their debt, or skimped and saved to pay for college, or chose lower-cost schools to avoid a debt trap.”
There’s little doubt this move will be used by both political parties in the midterm elections. After all, there’s never been an executive action with this sized price tag in peacetime, which also means plenty of legal challenges will be filed. But by the time you’re reading this, we likely will know how this played out in the midterm campaigns.
Did the previously expected Republican wave turn into a trickle? Or did it evaporate altogether like Lake Mead in the Nevada sun, exposing a political party’s corpses and skeletons on the dry lake bed? Did the Democrats hold the Senate and Republicans take the House by a small or large margin? Or did the president and the Democrats defy historical precedent and hang onto both chambers of Congress?
MCKAY DANIELS is NRCA’s CEO.
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