Is College for Everyone?

Michelle Singletary of The Washington Post asks whether higher education is a right or a privilege.  She doesn’t, though, answer the prior question of the purpose of going to college, and who should benefit from that.  Nor does she address the related question of why college is so expensive in the first place.

She cites some student debt statistics as part of the foundation of her question:

Among borrowers, the average debt for recipients of bachelor’s degrees increased 36 percent, from $17,075 in 1996 to $23,287 in 2008. But that average borrowing figure masks the pain felt by many students and graduates. We know many are strapped with an oppressive amount of debt that requires them to stretch payments out for 20 to 30 years.

She misses the context, though.  That debt is the debt on a new car, with the duration of a home mortgage.  Moreover, that home mortgage is an order of magnitude larger.  She asserts the pain of the student debt, but she offers no substantiation of it.  Certainly, money spent on the student debt is money not available to spend on other things—that new car, or the mortgage, perhaps.  But then, for those who understand the finite nature of the supply of money in an individual’s pocketbook, such tradeoffs are commonplace, and well planned for.  There is that cost of college driving those loans, though….

In the general-public poll, 75 percent of respondents said college is just too expensive. Among respondents 18 to 34 who did not have a bachelor’s degree and aren’t enrolled in school, 48 percent said they couldn’t afford a college education.

Then she turns to her confused purpose of college, buried in her question of who should foot the bill.

So if it’s in the best interest of the country to educate people so they can qualify for better-paying jobs, who should foot the college bill?

Is that, in fact, the purpose of the education—to make money, and not more broadly to learn to be more effective in a competitive, modern world?  If it is to increase one’s personal income (no mean goal in itself), then Ms Singletary has answered her own question: the one who will obtain that better-paying job is the one who should pay for the education that leads to it.  Indeed, if the purpose is that other one, still it’s the one being educated that benefits (albeit society also gains—but then so does society gain from the higher paying job), and so it is that one who should pay.

But there is that high cost….

Then she sets up her conflation:

If going to college is a right and vital to our nation’s economic standing, then government will have to do more to make it affordable for all.

The premise of a right is entirely separate to the premise of being vital to national economic standing.  But where is this right supported in our founding documents?  Our several States have laws mandating presence in schools until a certain age, generally 16 years old.  Our Declaration of Independence acknowledges the inalienable rights of Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.  John Adams explained that Happiness:

All men are born free and independent, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights, among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.

Nothing in any of that about a right to a “higher education” in particular.  Certainly, in a modern world, such an education can prove highly useful, but utility does not define, or create, “right.”

Ms Singletary constructs a straw man alternative to this “right:”

If it’s a privilege, only the nation’s wealthiest families will one day be able to send their children to college.

But this straw man compounds its irrelevance by proceeding from the false premise that college must be as expensive as it is today.

What drives expense, though is not the demand for seats in college classrooms so much as it is two other things.  One is the rampant federal subsidies for students to go to college—all those student loan guarantees, all those grants and grants-in-aid, and so on—and all those financial incentives from the federal government to the colleges themselves to boost enrollment.

The other thing that drives demand is itself two-fold.  One of these is all those rampant federal subsidies for the students.  The other is the stigma that lack of a college degree means the person who doesn’t have one is somehow lacking, somehow less than his high school classmate who graduated from college.  It’s the pressure applied to everyone that they must go to college, whether it’s useful or not to a particular individual.

This brings me to a third question that must be answered before we can begin a discussion of right vs privilege for getting that higher education: who, in fact, should go to college?

Consider, for just one example, the trades—everything from a highly-skilled machinist, to an auto mechanic, to a plumber or electrician to—on and on.  Are the people who work in the trades not as valuable in our work force as the folks who work in the financial industry, or for the defense contractor, or  in IT—not in terms of money, but in terms of the health of our economy?  If you question the actual value of their work, try to repair your own car, or wire your own house.

What’s the value of a college education to these folks?  Must they incur the cost of those student loans, or the cost of four years of tuition and books out of their own pockets, to learn their trades and then go to work?  Plainly not.

3 thoughts on “Is College for Everyone?

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