The Siren Song of Free College – The Right Engle

A common theme for activists and politicians of the left is the propensity to expand the bounds of what constitute entitlements.

In the case of education, it has grown from primary and secondary school, to technical school, and now often to four-year college. Faced with mounting student debt, the allure of loan forgiveness and free education continues to get stronger amongst younger generations. Statist activists talk about a “fair” solution to the problem. Of course, fairness in their context simply means the government has to pay.

Turning college into an entitlement is a terrible idea that will only further exacerbate the inefficiencies and cost problems already weighing on the American higher education system. Change certainly does need to occur, but writing a blank check may be the worst possible solution.

Entitlement Fever

Education has an inherent opportunity cost in time and resources. And most of the benefits of an education accrete to the person receiving it. Thus, it makes sense that the individual bear the majority of the cost for improving their employment prospects and increasing their skills. The government should not indulge young people in a free four-year semi-vacation during which they can discover who they are and broaden their personal horizons. If they want to do that, they should be expected to pay for it.

One might make a sound argument for some sort of state support or provision for primary and secondary education, insofar as they provide a critical baseline for performing most worthwhile services. College is a different beat entirely. Citizens can work, function, and engage in the civil society without a degree.

Avoid Waste

Any time we see the government offering a universal service, we see grotesque waste and inefficiency. Layers of bureaucracy accrete, resources are allocated to fit government agendas, and waste will abound.

There is also a problem of wasting educational resources on students who don’t actually want to partake of the benefits of a college education but who go because it is free. They can enjoy their four-year holiday and maybe learn something. Asking taxpayers to pay for all of them without discriminating between motivation and talent is foolish in the extreme.

Universal college education will also mean universal degree holders, saturating the market and rendering degrees as markers of quality largely irrelevant. In order to have value, a degree must be a signal of quality. When everyone has a degree, the value of such a qualification plummets. The ability for employers to ascertain high quality potential employees is thus presented with greater difficulty in making a selection. The flipside of this is that graduates end up serving in jobs that do not require a degree-holding individual to do them.

Restoring Sanity

We are already living in the midst of what could be a higher education bubble. When the bubble bursts, our financial system will feel the deluge as badly as will the education system.

True reform must address the current distortions of incentives facing students and education-purveyors. Sanity has to be restored to the education marketplace. That means less government, not more.

This post was written by John Engle.

The views expressed here belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect our views and opinions.

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John Engle

John Engle is a merchant banker and author living in the Chicago area. His company, Almington Capital, invests in both early-stage venture capital and in public equities. His writing has been featured in a number of academic journals, as well as the blogs of the Heartland Institute, Grassroot Institute, and Tenth Amendment Center. A graduate of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland and the University of Oxford, John’s first book, Trinity Student Pranks: A History of Mischief and Mayhem, was published in September 2013.

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