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Opinion The answer to Bernie Sanders’s student debt proposal is ‘no’

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders wave to supporters at a campaign rally in Queens, N.Y. on Saturday.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders wave to supporters at a campaign rally in Queens, N.Y. on Saturday. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
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Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is back on the presidential campaign trail, seemingly energized after his recent heart attack and rallying the progressive troops, including last weekend at a huge event for more than 20,000 people in Queens, N.Y.

He received an endorsement from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and, when his turn to speak came, delivered an old-fashioned stemwinder, drawing big roars with call-and-response lines such as this: “Are you willing to fight for young people drowning in student debt — even if you are not?”

Undoubtedly, Sanders’s rhetorical question reflected one of his deepest convictions: that public college education should be free to everyone, and that existing student debt, all $1.6 trillion of it, should be canceled. He’s got a plan, priced at $2.2 trillion over 10 years, to be paid for with a tax on stock and bond trades.

Equally undoubtedly, there are legitimate concerns about certain categories of student debt, especially the billions that have been incurred to pay for sketchy for-profit colleges or overpriced master’s degrees.

Still, the appropriate answer to Sanders’s proposition is “No.” For all of his lofty altruistic talk, the democratic socialist’s student debt plan actually violates basic principles of social justice.

The case for free college emphasizes the collective benefits to society of an educated and, hence, productive populace; these are real. Accordingly, some of higher education’s costs should be paid collectively, which is why we have institutions such as land-grant universities, Pell tuition grants for poor students and subsidized student loans.

However, a good portion of that investment’s payoff accrues individually to the roughly 35 percent of the U.S. adult population who actually have bachelor’s degrees (or higher), and who receive the substantial earnings premium that comes along with it. That earnings premium is $1 million over a lifetime for a college graduate, relative to what a high school graduate would get, according to a 2014 report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

People who have borrowed to pay for college can pay it back out of the enhanced earnings it yields: a $1 million lifetime premium is a lot more than the average new graduate’s loan balance, $29,800.

Aggregate debt burden figures, it should be noted, are inflated by disproportionately large debts people owe for graduate and professional school. In the 2015-2016 academic year, the 17 percent of federal student loan borrowers who were graduate and professional students accounted for 38 percent of federal education loans, according to an Urban Institute study.

Future doctors, lawyers and MBAs may expect even higher lifetime earnings than mere BAs.

In short, the Sanders plan amounts to a huge subsidy for the middle class — and above. Someone who is not “drowning in student debt” because, like most people, he or she never went to college, and therefore earns less, might reasonably object to “fighting” for aid to those who owe.

So might Americans of modest means who may have sacrificed mightily to pay for college without borrowing, or without borrowing as much.

As it happens, it’s not clear that the student debt burden is as unmanageable as Sanders implies. The latest Education Department statistics, announced last month, show that student-loan default rates declined 6.5 percent between fiscal 2015 and fiscal 2016, to the lowest level since 2009.

Similar arguments apply to the college affordability plan from Sanders’s progressive rival, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), even though hers is slightly less grandiose; the very highest-earning 5 percent of borrowers would not be eligible.

Doesn’t it make a difference that Sanders (and Warren) propose to pay for debt relief and free tuition by soaking the rich? Not much.

Even millionaires and billionaires do not have infinite resources. You can only go to that well so many times; and every tax dollar Sanders extracts from the plutocracy to pay off student debt is a dollar that won’t be available to pay for other programs, including some that would disproportionately benefit lower-income people.

It’s a question of priorities. The fact that most of the debt Sanders and Warren propose to write off is, at present, being paid on time, and that much of it was contracted by relatively well-off folks in the first place, only compounds the policy irrationality — though there’s undeniable political logic in courting the student vote.

College affordability must be attacked on all fronts, including through federal regulatory reform and budgetary discipline at institutions that have let their administrative costs balloon. More state and federal resources may be part of the solution, too, ideally with increased spending targeted to students who need help most.

Yes, Democrats do need to be willing to fight — for a pragmatic progressive view of public policy and against the simplistic alternative offered by Bernie Sanders.

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Read more:

James Downie: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar’s Sanders endorsements matter — and not just to him

Henry Olsen: Don’t be surprised if Sanders becomes the kingmaker of the convention

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Sanders and Warren are widening the Democratic Party’s left lane

Beth Akers: There’s too much emphasis on reducing student loans and not enough on reducing risk

Megan McArdle: Who will really benefit from Warren’s student debt plan?