Not everyone goes to college. Indeed, even these days a rather large chunk of young adults never attend.
Who goes to college? Well, attendance rates are strongly correlated with family income.
What is life like for those who don’t go to college during their young adult years? Lots of unemployment.
So, to sum it up: a large minority of young adults never go to college; these young adults are heavily disproportionately from the lower classes; and these non-attendees often languish in joblessness. Even those who do find employment likely do not have a particularly well-paid or fulfilling job.
When you bring in the full picture of young adult life, you see very quickly that the student benefit debates we have in this country are mostly incoherent. These debates split people into two camps: the means-testers and the universalists. But neither label actually fits either camp.
The means-testers say that we need to target benefits to the most vulnerable, poorest people. Thus, they say that we need to provide benefits to poor students rather than rich students. But the most vulnerable, poorest people are not poor students. They are poor non-students. They are the substantial minority of people (mostly from the lower classes) who never attend college at all.
The universalists say that we need to provide benefits for everyone. Thus, they say we need to provide benefits to poor and rich students alike. But this is not a universalist position because it again misses the huge chunk of young people who are not students.
Some might say I am being ridiculous in making this point because the question is about student benefits and so it is just off topic to bring nonstudents into the discussion. But I don’t think it is. The fact is that college is, for most people, a labor force attachment strategy. The reason people go to college, and the thing politicians talk about with regard to college, is that college allows individuals to transition from childhood into a (hopefully) decent-paying job and career. An exclusive focus on student benefits (regardless of whether that focus is means-tested or universalist in nature) ignores the young adults who also need help attaching to the labor force but do not go to college.
The student benefit debate centers on rich students v. poor students, but the more meaningful divide in many ways is students v. nonstudents. And, implicitly at least, all sides of the debate seem to agree that students are the more important and more needy of the two when the exact opposite is true.
I’ve written extensively on this particular problem in the past, but never offered much of a positive alternative. More recently, I’ve thought a lot about the idea of Attachment Benefits. That is, we should as a society designate ages 18–24 as the attachment zone during which all paths into a career are fully supported by public benefits and services. Students get their free school. But, under the exact same umbrella, nonstudents get their free vocational training, subsidized apprenticeships, in-work subsidies, public jobs, and whatever else it takes to ensure a lasting labor force attachment. That would be a program that is actually in fitting with the ideals of universalism.
One reason I suspect the Attachment Benefits idea doesn’t occur to people is that student benefits (whether universal or means-tested) are not merely a way of subsidizing students. They are part of an overall agenda — adopted by liberals and leftists alike — that says that we need universal college completion. Why? Because, they say, college is the new high school and we should want everyone to attend it because that is the only way to get a good middle class job these days.
This kind of rhetoric seems to rally the crowds, but is as dumb as it is stirring. As I have been saying for years now, pushing more and more people through college will not automatically transform all the jobs into good ones. The mix of jobs available in the economy at any given time is determined by lots of different factors and it’s doubtful that squeezing out more marginal college degrees at this point is going to change that mix all that much. College education gives an individual a much better shot at a good life, but it does not follow that it also increases the aggregate amount of good lives.
Perhaps thinking of student benefits in the context of Attachment Benefits will help to avoid this kind of confused thinking. We really ought to think more clearly about how we should be attaching people to the labor force in the first place, and how that attachment interacts with what kind of job mix we expect society to have. The current plan, which seems to be crossing our fingers that pushing a bunch of people through college will usher in a land where everyone has a good job, is nuts.