Free College: Is it worth it?

I absolutely understand the profound allure of free college education. My wife and I graduated from college and graduate school in the late 90’s, with college debt. We were fortunate to find jobs that compensated us for our educational efforts, and we paid off the debt as quickly as we could. Was the education worth the debt? I know I can speak for us both in saying “yes.”

Bernie Sanders is attracting a lot of attention for his proposal to provide free college education to everyone. And it absolutely resonates with his core constituency: younger voters frustrated with the political establishment. Of course it does: a huge number of them are either still in school or recently graduated with debt. I could suggest that offering free college is pandering. But I don’t believe that it’s immoral to want a free education. I could suggest there’s no way to pay for it, but I suspect there’s some mechanism (which itself may be fraught with ideological challenges) to accomplish it.

I’d rather suggest that offering free college is a politically expedient mechanism to avoid a harder conversation about the real issue: our educational system is fundamentally broken. IMHO, the cost of college isn’t the problem.

It’s the value of college that is the problem.

There are myriad analyses of what’s happened to college tuitions over time, and why. Go here, and here, and here and here. (that last one, by the way, is the Senior Thesis for a student getting her B.S. at the Stern School of Business at NYU).

Some highlights from the articles linked above:

  • College is a high fixed cost, low marginal cost business
  • Total enrollment (demand) has increased since 1987 (Millennials, d’uh).
  • Federal loans and grants are available only to students attending accredited schools, thereby constraining supply.
  • The costs to provide college education are higher than the revenues received through tuition (unit losses).
  • The wage gap between high school only graduates and graduates with post-high school degrees has widened, further increasing demand.
  • Countries with free college education don’t have the highest percentage of college graduates in their workforce.

So, you’re telling me that supply is artificially constrained in the face of rising demand, and the business has high fixed costs and low marginal costs and costs exceed revenues. And you’re suggesting it’s surprising and unacceptable that prices have risen? And the answer to that issue is to further raise demand by making it FREE?

Like the red herring that is the political conversation about taxes (a rant for another day), the notion of just making college free strikes me as a willful dodging of the underlying issues. Costs? Let’s not talk about costs. The role of college in creating a better employment base? Let’s assume that going to college makes you a better employee. The role of college in personal growth and advancement? Let’s assume that college is the path to personal growth and advancement.

If we’re willing to make all those assumptions, then I guess we can all feel the Bern. But, I’m just not willing to accept that.

Our educational system is archaic. There. I said it. It’s over 100 years old. We have a school year built around the planting and the harvest. We have a curriculum created over a hundred years ago: earth science → biology → chemistry → physics, non-Western civilization → US History → civics, algebra → geometry → trigonometry → calculus… Vocational training is virtually non-existent. We build curriculum around tests intended to assess college readiness.

Some of that makes actual sense and some of it only makes sense because that’s how all 3 of the people likely to read this moved through high school.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, states were creating their ‘modern’ school systems. They asked themselves the purpose of high school. The answer, almost uniformly, was “preparation for college.” Sounds good. Except the other side of the coin was “preparation for life.” I really like that side of the coin.

If we want to fix college, we don’t need to make it free. Affordability is a real goal. But I can’t help but believe that what we should be thinking about is how we can influence the demand for college. Does the wage gap exist? Absolutely. And that in and of itself is a part of the problem. Culturally we have created a mandate of college education. Get a degree or you’re worth less. Message received.

But that’s nonsense. Simply getting a degree doesn’t make you a better employee. What makes you a better employee is your native ability + your learned skills + your work effort + your approach to life. A Bachelor of Arts in History is commendable. It represents dedicated effort to meet all the bureaucratic requirements imposed on your learning process. But as a non-academic employer I could frankly give a shit about that History of the Himalayan Peoples class you took. If it taught you how to work in a team environment, or to do work well that you hated, or how to express yourself effectively, then I’ll be interested. But you can also get those same skills without paying $40,000 a year in tuition. In fact, you can probably get paid $25,000 a year to learn them.

Do we need a well-educated workforce? Absolutely. But college isn’t where we need to carry all the water as a society. College is the perfect destination for lots of folks. And a post-high school certification or degree(s) is absolutely necessary for technical jobs or professions. But college isn’t actually the perfect training ground for our workforce. We face a pronounced skilled labor shortage in the workforce: plumbers, electricians, carpenters… We have a generation of potential employees who look sideways at manufacturing jobs and other ‘menial’ jobs as ‘beneath’ them. I have a message: that problem is all of ours to bear, and it’s our own fault.

We don’t need to make college free. We need to make it unnecessary. An affordable option? Absolutely. But we need to stop artificially propping demand with a cultural expectation for enrollment. The place to start is high school and grade school, where it’s already ‘free.’ It’s time to re-think the objective. If we can get kids adequately prepared for life, they’ll be ready for it when it hits them, and they can choose from more than one productive and acceptable path after high school graduation.