The double bind of education finance is that if the state foots the bill, the quality of education tends to be lower, but if the onus falls on the student to pay, low income families are essentially barred from accessing higher education. The latter would mean that not only were these students dealt a harder starting position in life compared to those born to richer parents, but they are also cut off from accessing the wage premiums offered by a degree, potentially perpetuating a poverty cycle.
In America, where the total student debt is estimated to be $1.5 trillion, democratic presidential candidates are vying for the student vote with drastic measures. Bernie Sanders wants to wipe out all outstanding student debt and make universities completely free. Elizabeth Warren wants to wipe out student debt up to $50,000. The prevailing rhetoric is that no person deserves to be weighed down by debt accumulated from the pursuit of knowledge and skill enhancement.
This may be no more than a political smokescreen, however. While student debt in America has risen, this is largely due to more students taking out more loans, secure in the knowledge that less than a decade of a high-paying Wall Street job in their successful future, careers would vanish the debt. Debt forgiveness would disproportionately benefit those who are already on track to earning the big bucks. Not only this, but the privileged white middle class are typically overrepresented amongst those who are lucky enough to invest thousands in their own education. Debt forgiveness would benefit those who are already sending off their children to college, not those left behind as teen parents struggling to feed young children or working dead-end part time jobs to support ailing parents.
Free higher education in the UK, as Corbyn promised in his failed coup for prime minister, would most certainly encourage low income families to send their children to university. However, the attainment gaps between low and high income families begin in early childhood. Free universities would benefit poor students who are already top of the class, on bursaries in private schools or attending elite grammar schools that they got accepted into on the basis of a test that they did when they were eleven years old. Free universities would not incentivise poor students who were failed by state education in their formative years.
What’s more, free universities would bring a host of problems. The quality of education in our famous institutions would certainly decrease due to lack of funding. The Greek problem of overeducation is also a warning sign. In Greece, where higher education is funded by the taxpayer, there is a surplus of degree-wielding graduates who struggle to find positions in a job market that is hungry for low skilled labour.
With the US primaries on the edge of tipping point, it is important to distinguish fact from fiction. No one should be constrained by the financial positions of their parents. At the same time, state-funded university degrees may not be the easy answer we would hope for.