With high school graduation looming, I applied to several colleges and was accepted by Hamlin College, the University of Minnesota, Carleton College and St. Cloud State University. Since I was footing the bill myself, I had three criteria for the final selection; total cost, major and location.

One of the issues in this political season is student loan debt and what, if anything, to do about it; free public college, loan forgiveness and other suggestions for dealing with this problem have been discussed. Studies undertaken by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York calculate that current student debt is $1.5 trillion dollars carried by 44.7 million Americans. Lending Tree surveyed the class of 2018 and found that 69 percent of college students had loan obligations with an average debt of $29,800. In addition, the same survey discovered that 14 percent of parents had taken out an average of $35,600 in loans to help finance their children’s college education. Clearly student debt is a concern, but for who?

According to the US government, 70 percent of student debt obligations are paid off within ten years of graduation. The vast majority of those who take longer than ten years are usually professionals with advanced degrees (e.g. doctors and lawyers) with much higher debt but also substantially greater final incomes. The elephant in the room is that the discussion is about the debt that college graduates owe and not their parents or dropouts. NPR reports that the loan default rate is three times higher for college dropouts than for those who graduate. There are more than four million people who have dropped out of college owing federal loan debt; that doesn’t begin to count the kids who owe private banks or family members, presumably private debt would not be forgiven. “Free college” results in those who finish college with ostensibly a marketable degree perhaps having some expenses paid whereas people who drop out would still owe all the money, sans the degree while generally earning less than those graduates with forgiven loans.

“Free public college” will not eliminate all student debt. Sandy Baum and Michael McPherson of the Urban Institute did research finding that students at public colleges who qualify for zero tuition still borrowed an average of $24,000 over the course of their college careers for living expenses. Presumably, there would be some limits on “free college” qualifying expenditures.

The real problem is students who shouldn’t be going to college in the first place who are encouraged to do so, borrow money, then can’t meet university expectations and drop out burdened with debt. CollegeAtlas.org states that 56 percent of students drop out of college by the end of their sixth year without a degree. (The average time to earn a “four year” college degree in America is now six years.) A college dropout can expect to earn, on average, $21,000 less a year than a college graduate; add the dropout’s college debt to that and you’ve added insult to injury.

The solution is not free public college, which would only encourage people who shouldn’t pursue a four-year degree into wasting their time and our money at an institution where they aren’t going to succeed. Free public college is also a threat to private institutions like Dakota Wesleyan University. We need better counseling for young people in order to guide them into post-secondary education that fits their capabilities and pocketbooks. For kids going to school it means being realistic about what is affordable, that’s why Hamlin and Carleton were out for me. It means being hard eyed about the return on investment of higher education in terms of your choice of study and what is a reasonable amount of debt for that major, art history vs. medicine as an example. While a hiatus on debt now during the coronavirus crisis makes sense, college is a choice that individuals should make without taxpayers footing their entire bill.