December 8, 2015
By Noah Smith
"The U.S. needs more education" has been conventional wisdom for decades now. I can still remember, as a teenager, hearing Bill Clinton and other politicians promise that higher education would be the key to preparing Americans for the new information-based economy.
That orthodoxy has not diminished in force -- if anything, higher education looms larger as a policy tool now than it did then. The idea is especially powerful on the political left. President Obama recently unveiled an initiative to make two years of community college free across the nation. A recent Brookings Institution report on eliminating poverty and enhancing opportunity (written jointly with the American Enterprise Institute) made education one of its main planks.
But senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has gone farther than anyone. He recently introduced a "College for All" act that would make all four-year public universities tuition-free, and which would provide significant debt relief to student borrowers. Sanders's plan has been endorsed by some left-leaning publications such as The Nation. In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, the senator explained his thinking. He wrote:
In my view, education is essential for personal and national well-being. We live in a highly competitive, global economy, and if our economy is to be strong, we need the best-educated workforce in the world. We won't achieve that if, every year, hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college while millions more leave school deeply in debt.
It is good to see even self-described "socialists" such as Sanders recognize the reality that the global economy is competitive, and that productivity is based partly on skills. But as a solution to the problem of inequality, education is probably being oversold. Sanders' plan would be expensive, but it's not at all clear that it would result in any economic improvement for the vast majority of its beneficiaries.
Read the full article at BloombergView: Free College Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be