A pillar of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign thus far has been the promise to provide “free college” for all Americans; Hillary Clinton proposes a substantial shift in the same direction. Perhaps “forced college” would be a more accurate way to describe these ideas, and not just because everyone else will be forced to pay for them as has been a common conservative and libertarian narrative surrounding these proposals. By making it convenient for many employers to consider only those who have a piece of paper indicating that they can work moderately hard and may have some vague knowledge of a random subject, educational subsidies create a need where none fundamentally exists, effectively forcing young people into highly inefficient job screening programs.
Of course, the system does work out pretty well for some students, mainly those at the most prestigious universities, and the type who study subjects of low market value (which would otherwise be more expensive) and enjoy poring over obscure journal articles; some of those students will go on to become academics and be paid to produce even more obscure research for other academics to pore over.
Unfortunately, these people are the minority. Most students don’t particularly enjoy academic study and will waste a tremendous amount of time in college “studying” material of little interest or value to them. In fact a 2010 study examining learning outcomes across 24 US campuses found that 45% had learned absolutely nothing after 2 years of college education. I suspect most students, for whom the educational process largely entails cramming for exams and quickly forgetting anything learned in the process, will understand these findings intuitively. The big loser in this system is therefore not just the taxpayer but the common student, and not only because subsidies drive up tuition cost, but because they will waste thousands of dollars and hours satisfying arbitrary requirements.
Even those who do learn valuable skills are doing so in a highly inefficient manner, hampered by the stagnant practices of third level institutions. Why does the face to face lecture, a process which was an efficient method of informational transfer in a time when books were in short supply, but is largely redundant in the internet age, remain a cornerstone of instruction? In a time when recollection of information has never been a less relevant skill and the keyboard has long usurped the pen, why do closed book, hand written exams remain the dominant method of assessment? One answer is that when the users of a service don’t fully pay for that service, and when demand is created artificially, inefficiency becomes inevitable. In modern universities, research is a primary focus for academics and there is little incentive for teaching innovation When designing assessments, the aim is largely to differentiate between students as cheaply as possible.
Of course, in spite of these problems, the college experience will register for most as a positive one for reasons wholly aside from education. Many will feel, no matter how useless that business degree was once they entered the workforce, that to never have attended college would be to have sorely missed out. But must this coming of age experience be tied to four years of formal academic training? The fact that it so often is must be due in large part to the emphasis governments have placed upon these institutions. This question aside, in a free educational market the focus would move away from box ticking and towards the development of valuable skills and genuinely worthwhile experiences.
However, with a global educational arms race ongoing and traditional institutions the standard-bearer, eliminating third level funding – Ron Paul style – probably isn’t a great option. The ideal perhaps would be to negotiate a ceasefire with other nations and move gradually towards a global free market. But that is an unlikely prospect, and Sanders and Clinton may be right that making college affordable for all is in the best interests of US students.
At present, the US system may be a uniquely bad one for young people, in that it not only forces them to attend college, but to pay for a large portion of it themselves. Then again maybe further investment will simply screw over even more students who might otherwise have found employment without need for a degree, and reduce standards even further to boot.
Proponents of third level subsidies may have some valid arguments. The assumption that they are to the benefit of the average student, however, is one that needs to be seriously questioned.
* Eoin Perry is an economics and philosophy student at University College Cork, Ireland. In his free time he enjoys complaining about governments.