The Free College Try

The election talk is heating up. Too early, at that. But I offer a warning to the candidates, lest the rest of us end up forced to decide between two similarly bad outcomes.

To capture the young vote next year, the Democrats’ strategy, in particular, is founded upon promises of affordable or even “free” college for all students. Bernie Sanders’ plan, by even more greatly expanding the role of the federal government in student aid, would eliminate federal “profit” on student debt, somehow. Furthermore, it offers “significant relief to current student debt holders” — a shout-out to millennials.

I wish I could speak for my fellow recent college graduates by voicing some reservations here. But the tragic irony is that many of us are too “educated” to discern what lies ahead. There is, of course, nothing “free” about this “free college.” It actually costs a lot, but to other people. And, for reasons offered below, more of that cost is bound to be wasted.

This always draws the passionate response that college is a right, not a privilege, and ought to be free because society benefits as a whole from having an educated populace. Let’s not forget that too many students do not get much “education” for their buck even when they and their families are paying their own way through.

By transferring the financial burden of college to millions of random strangers whom the student will never meet, his sense of risk is removed and his work ethic naturally declines. This is known in economics as “moral hazard.” And to those who claim that the solution is to require a minimum GPA, this would more likely worsen the problem of grade inflation — already pervasive within American universities.

Secondly, for students who don’t go to college to obtain a particular skill — or, more and more commonly, have no idea even what major to select — their real contribution to society is nigh impossible to quantify. It’s okay if boosting the number of STEM jobs in the U.S. economy is not your first priority when it comes to higher education; nor is it mine. But you shouldn’t force others to pay directly for what affects them only dubiously.

Consider also that a typical college degree is a mere signal to employers — an increasingly low bar by which to weed out a few résumés — not necessarily an indication of how “educated” the individual is, or how much their enlightened self enriches society. This is evident especially given how many new graduates end up in very low-paying jobs for which they and their expensive degrees are overqualified. To federally subsidize university costs will not solve this problem.

In fact, it will make things worse. Everyone tends to agree that America has suffered serious credential inflation over time; that is, many jobs which used to call for a high school diploma now require at least a four-year undergraduate degree. Under the “free college” plan, the dramatic increase in enrollment would complete college’s transformation into the new high school, diminishing the financial worth of the degree.

From there, one can reasonably expect that young people attempting to stand out in the job market would feel compelled towards grad school as well. Once those opportunities fill out, how could attention not turn to subsidizing the cost of grad school, followed by more enrollment and a greater need for job-seekers to pursue even more advanced credentials?

How are people expected to enter the workforce at all if they are to spend their most able-bodied years, even decades, pursuing degree after degree of taxpayer-funded education? Where is the pattern expected to end? Perhaps retirement.

If this path to an “educated” society sounds tortuous, and mercilessly intertwined with economics, it is. Politicians of all creeds are free to take advantage of the ambiguity in the name of good intentions. I do not favor a society built on coercion in the line of good intentions because, eventually, you can use them to justify anything.

So while we millennials have the collective attention of the government and our hopeful future leaders, let us remember that it’s never too early to say:

Please stop “helping” us.

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2 thoughts on “The Free College Try

  1. F-R-E-E-E-E College. F-R-E-E-E Health Care. F-R-E-E-E-E- Food and Shelter.
    Prison comes to mind.
    1/3rd of students don’t even graduate from mandatory FREE high school.
    Does anybody recall the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 when everybody standing in bread lines had a PhD? How about introducing industrial apprenticeships to Charter Schools to lower the cost of education and upgrade the quality of employable graduates? We have 94 million people unemployed or under employed right now.

  2. I disagree but I believe that everyone should include a fundamental right to education and health. And that just because something is difficult or poses challenges does not make it a net negative. Bernie can fund this by eliminating Corporate Welfare. Sometimes you do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Even if it has a cost — for me (and I’ve been both a student and a professor) the right to education should be a universal one.

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