On Monday, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released a plan to cancel $1.6 trillion in student loan debt. With this proposal, Sanders joins other Democratic candidates, like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who have made student debt relief a key campaign promise.
These plans sound great. They address a debt crisis that’s strangling the U.S. economy, and both Sanders' and Warren’s plans include how they would pay for them — by taxing Wall Street transactions and levying a new wealth tax, respectively.
But cancelling student debt isn’t enough to solve the college affordability crisis, even when paired with the candidates’ proposals for free tuition at public universities. Cancelling student debt and making college free may offer relief to some students, but these proposals ignore the central issue with the cost of a college education that is, well, the cost of a college education.
Last week, I wrote a column about the soaring cost of tuition at public universities. I argued, to some extent, state legislatures are to blame for underfunding public education. But I also criticized university administrations for mishandling their budgets. After all, administrators ultimately determine how much a university spends and, as a result, how much students pay in tuition.
If you’re reading this column, you’re probably well aware the University’s administration doesn’t always make decisions with students' best interests in mind. Cancelling student debt and making public college tuition free wouldn’t do anything to change this. Doing so would do nothing less than absolve our administrators of their obligation to administer the University responsibly.
Higher education is a labor-intensive industry. The salaries and healthcare costs of faculty, staff and administrators comprise a significant portion of any college’s budget. Over time, administrative overheads have ballooned as universities shell out six-figures to pay associate vice provosts, assistant deans and other “deanlets,” while cutting faculty and horrendously underpaying adjunct professors.
Sure, some of these administrative costs are the result of serving a more diverse student body. But when the cost of a college education is becoming so expensive that our national leaders are willing to spend $1.6 trillion to relieve the burden student debt is inflicting on our economy, enormous administrative overheads and half-baked building projects become harder to justify.
I believe there’s a solid philosophical argument to be made for making public undergraduate education free, especially while the cost of such education is skyrocketing. But candidates’ proposals so far have completely ignored poor administration is one of the main reasons college became so expensive in the first place.
If politicians really want to make college affordable for students in the long term, they need to rein in university administrations and impose caps on administrative overheads. This sort of action would go a long way, whether or not it’s attached to a proposal for free college.
Nick Hinman is a Junior from Olathe majoring in political science and philosophy.