Lots of talk this week about higher education, specifically student loan debt forgiveness. Any plan that forgives student debt would have to be paired with some sort of plan for free public school, or else it would simply degenerate into spiraling tuition costs ("Who cares, just borrow it and never pay it back, kids!") and an indirect subsidy of higher education through the worst possible means.
There is a lot of resistance to free higher education in any of the forms that left-leaning candidates have proposed it, most of which fall into the predictable "Yeah well who's gonna PAY for it huh?" trough that American political discourse uses whenever something that doesn't directly and obviously benefit the wealthy is proposed. But I think there are two other important things going on with the resistance to free or at least heavily subsidized college.
One is that the "Education is the silver bullet" mantra on the center-left would be undermined. Right now we can keep convincing people that their economic struggles are their own fault; if only you had the right skills you'd be doing so much better! We are already seeing a generation that has discovered the flaws with that argument. It turns out, of course, that many of the problems with the job markets and the economy are structural and not at all within the control of the individual. Sure, go get yourself all the fancy skills you can. When the jobs are being shipped overseas or turned into gig economy, no-benefits type work, those skills aren't going to feel very valuable. And the constant emphasis on the "right" skills is a canard; what skills are in high demand changes constantly, and encouraging students to flock toward whatever the hot skill of the moment might be has long term consequences that will appear in 20 years when that skill is decidedly no longer hot.
The second issue is that, to be crass, credentials are only valuable if there is some scarcity. Education is always valuable in the abstract, improving what the individual knows and can do. But when high school graduation rates neared 90%, what happened to a high school diploma? It became nearly worthless except as a basic entree into employment. The same thing has started to happen to the Bachelor's Degree. With more than 1/3 of adults holding one in the U.S., it's often not worth much on the job market (mileage varying based on field and brand name). If the theoretical everyone has one, no one is going to benefit from having one.
So to some extent – and sadly this is quite logical – a lot of the opposition to truly throwing open the doors to higher education comes from people with higher ed credentials who don't want to see the inevitable watering-down of the things they've used to establish professional success. We're looking at a pool of politically important, professionally successful people who are thinking, I paid out the ass for my kid to go to ____ and now people are just gonna get a BA for free? It's not the most attractive logic (and not enough of a reason on its own not to make a public policy that benefits society as a whole) but I certainly understand it. I have an advanced degree, and if everyone in America suddenly had an advanced degree it would be worth significantly less (if that's possible). So, I get it.
That said, only people who completely ignore the numbers and the inequity of what this generation has been subjected to in order to get the college degrees we tell them they absolutely MUST have can argue that we don't need to do something aggressive about student debt. Look at what has happened to college tuition since 2000 and stop pretending like your experiences going to college in the 70s and 80s is in any way meaningful to the current conversation. This really is a debt "crisis" and it's impacting every area of the economy down the line. People aren't buying houses, cars, investments, vacations, and all that other crap we tell people they should do (for their own long-term economic good, but moreso because our economy depends on people doing those things) because they can't afford it.
I understand the resistance, but this isn't a problem that can be ignored. And it's better to start with the most aggressive possible idea – free college period, debt forgiveness period – since you know whatever "solution" eventually gets out of Congress is going to be watered down a million times anyway. Don't do the watering-down up front. I thought we learned that lesson in 2009.