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No More Subsidies for Higher Education

George C. Leef

One of the most durable American shibboleths is that the more formal schooling young people get, the better off society will be. President Clinton, for example, proposed that we have a universal K-14 system, which would mean that the state would no longer be content with keeping children in school through high school, but that at least two years of college would be tacked on. Those two years would not have been mandatory—initially, at least—but of course taxpayer support for it would have been. His program did not pass, but then most of the expansions of governmental authority we now must endure didn’t pass when they were first proposed either.

People who want more government subsidies for higher education are quite persistent in inventing rationales for them. In the March 13, 2002, New York Times, columnist Richard Rothstein wrote that “the goal of offering every child a good education won’t be met unless lower-income high school graduates can afford college, and unless there is growth in state university systems that are now barely large enough to serve the middle class.”

You might expect Rothstein to argue that we need this state university growth because our economic future will be darkened unless we find ways to get lots of those lower-income high school graduates into college classrooms. That’s the usual argument. He acknowledges, however, that as a matter of economics, there seems to be no compelling reason to “grow the education system” (as Clinton might have put it). He states, “There may now be more demand for college graduates, but the data are not strong enough to justify a big expansion of higher education on economic grounds alone.”

All right—what does justify it then? “It will have to be a matter of social justice, and this complicates the political prospects for increased university capacity and for financial aid,” Rothstein continues. That’s pretty much the default setting for socialistic advocacy. The government must expand in order to realize that great chimera “social justice.”

F. A. Hayek pointed out in The Mirage of Social Justice (volume two of his trilogy, Law, Legislation, and Liberty) that we’re dealing with a nonsense phrase here. Justice or the lack thereof is an attribute of individual action; “society” is an abstraction, not an individual with moral responsibilities. But my interest here is not in philosophical debate. Let’s get back to education.

Note Rothstein’s equation of “a good education” with college attendance. It is obvious to anyone who will look that many American children receive exceedingly poor educations in the 12 years they spend in government-run schools. Employers frequently complain that they find it hard to fill routine factory jobs because of the low verbal and math skills of most applicants. College professors frequently complain that students entering their classes are “disengaged,” which is to say that they have little aptitude for or interest in the pursuit of “higher education.” (I use the snicker quotes because much of what now goes on in colleges and universities is merely a futile attempt to catch up for 12 years of educational neglect and malpractice.) Still, it’s an article of faith among the educationistas that a “good education” requires getting that college degree.

Unfortunately, for many students, college is four (or often more) years wasted, at considerable expense. The same employers who can’t find competent high school graduates to fill job openings also complain that many of the college graduates they interview are hardly any better. They can’t write coherent memos, do simple mathematical calculations, follow written instructions, and so on. In the past, a college degree was a reliable indicator of at least a reasonably good command of basic skills, but that is no longer so. Wanting to make themselves appealing to the increasing mass of students who disdain academic pursuits but want a college degree because it’s supposed to be the ticket to high-paying employment, colleges have adjusted their expectations downward, often approaching the vanishing point.

In their 1999 book Who’s Not Working and Why, Frederic Pryor and David Schaffer document the increasing phenomenon of college graduates who wind up working at “high school” jobs because of their low skill levels. Get a B.A., then work selling shoes or making lattes in the mall. The idea that we are doing some great service for youngsters, poor or otherwise, by subsidizing their way through to a meaningless bachelor’s degree is laughably mistaken.

College Degree Required?

But isn’t it true that ever more jobs require a college degree? Actually, no. U.S. Department of Labor forecasts show that the demand for labor in fields where college degrees are not necessary will remain strong—for example, construction work, truck driving, and retail clerks. But don’t take the forecast of a government agency as the final word. Think about all the many kinds of people you come in contact with every day, and ask yourself, “Would it be impossible for them to do their jobs without having gotten a college degree?” You’ll find that the answer is often, “obviously not.”

Even where employers have established the B.A. as a minimum requirement for job applicants, that is rarely because the work demands it. The reason for the requirement is usually that it serves as a convenient screening mechanism, based on the assumption that since so few young people don’t go to college now (about 70 percent enroll, but many drop out), anyone who is content with a mere high school diploma is probably incompetent. It’s not the case that jobs are becoming so difficult that only people who have studied and mastered advanced concepts taught in college can do them. College isn’t a “requirement” in that sense. It is merely a way some employers have chosen to quickly (and legally) filter out applicants they don’t want to spend time reviewing.

Besides Rothstein’s unwarranted adulation for college studies, there is another glaring problem with his call for more government higher-education spending. Let us suppose that postsecondary studies would be beneficial for some of those who cannot afford the cost of a college degree. Why does that call for an expansion of government-run universities? On the free market, students can find all kinds of certificate and degree programs that are privately run and financed. They can avail themselves of effective, low-cost, no-nonsense training for actual jobs that will begin to pay off in the short run. That is a lot better than a worthless B.A. in, say, “Hispanic Studies.”

The University of Phoenix, for example, is a for-profit enterprise with more than 100 campuses throughout North America. Its courses are practical—fields such as accounting, information technology, and health care. The professors are experienced practitioners. Time is not wasted. Because the customers are paying for something they want, the university is careful to give them good value for their money. For those who cannot afford the tuition out-of-pocket, financing is available. Moreover, Phoenix has lots of competition from DeVry, Kaplan, and innumerable technical institutes. The number of such proprietary schools has grown rapidly in recent years. Good quality higher education is already widely available to students who are ready and eager for it without any government involvement.

We have government-run schools from kindergarten through grad school that, on the whole, work just as poorly as you’d expect any government enterprise to work. With their low standards, bureaucratization, and political orientation, they graduate students bursting with high self-esteem but lacking in fundamental skills. Nevertheless, boosters of government education like Rothstein want still more of it for the shrinking percentage of young people who can’t or don’t choose to go to college. His program will further burden taxpayers (why is it that the “social justice” mavens never mention the injustice of forcibly taking money from taxpayers to waste on things they have no interest in?). It will also do nothing to improve the life chances of those young people who might be talked into enrolling in one of our degree mills.

Not everyone should go to college. The free market, however, provides an abundance of educational opportunities that are both more serious and more affordable than the government’s offerings for students who think more formal education will benefit them.

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