By chance, I happened to be in London during the recent general election, and so I had the pleasure of witnessing some of the Labour Party campaign that ultimately proved so successful. As an American well steeped in stateside politics, I was struck by the parallels between the British system and our own, particularly the talking points used by the generally left-wing Labour Party and how they compare to our own Democrats.
One of the key talking points of the Labour Party was a push to waive college tuitions, the same “free college for everyone” message that played so well for Bernie Sanders here at home.
The fact that people like free stuff has always been a boon to the Left and a stumbling block for anyone who cares about fiscal responsibility, sound economics, or personal freedom. Those who support the idea of free college (or more accurately, socialized college) argue that it will result in a better-educated population, which will lead to more productive workers, higher wages, and an overall decrease in income inequality. The problems with this argument are numerous, but the most serious one is a confusion between college and education.
This is a common stumbling block in politics. Politicians confuse one good for another and fallaciously argue that the provision of one will lead to an increase in the other. For example, the argument for Obamacare was that by requiring health insurance for everyone, the law could improve health care. As it turns out, this has not been the case, with many people experiencing reductions in their health care access due to the insurance mandate.
It’s easy to make the same mistake with education. Education is an abstract concept that has to be largely self-directed. You can’t impose an education on someone who doesn’t want one. Some would probably say “Well, of course everyone wants an education” but that is obviously not so, given that acquiring an education is costly, not just in terms of money, but in terms of time and effort as well.
College, if done correctly, can help provide an education, but the two words are not synonymous. Sending people to college by no means guarantees them an education. This is something I know all too well from my own college experience.
I attended Oberlin College, now famous as a bastion of progressivism and “campus culture.” Among my classmates were many fine people, but there were also plenty of rich kids who had been deposited there by their parents and who didn’t really care about making the most of the experience. College didn’t cost them anything, so they didn’t value it. They partied, skipped classes, and prioritized half-hearted political demonstrations over their studies. Some of them flunked out or were expelled.
The lack of interest didn’t hurt only themselves, but the rest of us as well. Administrative quotas meant that professors couldn’t fail too many students, whether they deserved it or not. I remember being appalled when one of my first exams was rescheduled because half the class didn’t bother to show up. Why not just fail the no-shows, I asked. Apparently that was not allowed. So standards were lowered to accommodate the laziest students.
In a world of free college tuition, everyone becomes a rich kid, with no stake in their own education and no real reason to try hard. Standards will fall even lower, and soon employers will learn not to value a college education at all. The well will have been poisoned, and even dedicated students will be unable to get much out of a watered-down university system.
Meanwhile, self-motivated people will eschew college altogether in favor of more valuable work experience, entrepreneurship, or extracurricular activities. The “free” colleges will become expensive babysitting facilities for adolescents, a race to the bottom for students with nothing better to do than live at the taxpayers’ expense.
Free college won’t improve education, just like universal health insurance doesn’t improve health care. It will only create a learning ghetto that benefits no one.