“Free” College Won’t Improve Education

By: Paul Boyce
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You’re a twenty-something student and have recently graduated. You’re excited to go and take on the world. However, you owe over $50,000. All you wanted to do is gain an education. This massive debt now looms over you. How can the world be so unfair? Why shouldn’t this education be free like the other forms are? Shouldn’t education be a right? Step in, Democratic Presidential nominee, Elizabeth Warren. She recently set out her plan to cancel student debt and abolish tuition fees. Her plan offers free tuition, as well as eliminating existing debt of up to $50,000. Each household with income below $100,000 would have up to $50,000 of debt wiped out.

What’s There Not To Like?

Surely free higher-education, is beneficial to society as a whole? If smarter people are coming out of colleges, greater value will be created in the economy. The trouble with this is that far too many degrees are not aligned to market demand. Religious Studies may be of interest to the student, but there aren’t many businesses or jobs that require such degrees. There is a case for creating a well-educated workforce, but this has turned into educating for educating’s sake.

The System Is Not Aligned With The Market

Too many students are coming out of the educational system and not utilising their degree. Whilst unemployment rates are low among graduates, many find themselves in jobs that don’t require a degree. From Starbucks baristas to Wal-Mart assistants — many now have a degree.

Some majors are more prone to underemployment than others. Performing arts graduates for example have an underemployment rate of 65.7% . Graduates in Leisure and Hospitality don’t favour much better, with an underemployment rate of 63%. By contrast, engineering and educational graduates score favourably on underemployment measures. The difference is that there is demand for engineers and educators, but not so much for performing arts.

There is a clear disconnect between the market and the educational system. Whilst the market demands graduates in science and engineering, the educational system provides graduates in arts and media.

“Free” College Wont Re-align The Market

Making college education free is not going to resolve the disconnect between the market and colleges. If college education is free, there is no downside of coming out underemployed. The risk associated is almost eradicated. One of the crucial parts of college education is determining whether it’s of value. It’s an investment. An investment that future earnings will be enhanced as a result. Will the enhanced earnings be worth more than the $50,000+ spent on education? By removing the cost, Warren’s proposal changes the incentives. The cost-benefit is changed. There is a significant benefit, but little cost. This incentivises greater participation. When the price of any good is removed, the demand for it will increase. College will be no exception.

More students going to college may seem like a good thing. However, what will they be going to study and what value will that degree have? Based on existing statistics, many will continue to come out underemployed. If we are educating millions of individuals that are not utilising that education, resources are wasted. Those same resources could be used to invest in capital equipment and increase productivity.

The Mess that Is American Public Secondary and Primary Education

Elizabeth Warren justifies her plan as part of an effort to help racial and ethnic minorities get into college. However, given how little government schools at the primary and secondary levels do for students who are low-income or non-white, it’s hard to have confidence in just another government education scheme. After all, at lower levels of public education, instruction and outcomes are notoriously poor for just the sorts of students Warren says she can help. What reason do we have to believe that universal government education at the college level will finally get it right?

If Warren wants to expand college access, she’s be more worried about ensuring schools provide the skills necessary to enter and thrive at higher education institutions. Right now, that simply isn’t happening.

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