No, college shouldn’t be free

By Lucas Coughlin

Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)
(Andy Castillo/Daily Collegian)

I came across an article in the Wall Street Journal the other day that caught my attention. Some college graduates are, apparently, appealing to the federal government to forgive their student debt “on the grounds that schools deceived them with false promises of a well-paying career.” Though most of these applicants are unlikely to be successful, their suits are indicative of the mien of many recent college grads. With college more expensive than ever, and with so many recent graduates struggling, it is worth asking if perhaps we ought to reevaluate the purpose of a college education.

The plight of the post-grad is often overstated: The Economic Policy Institute, for example, finds that an improving labor market has positively impacted the employment levels of young college grads. Similarly, young people today have a significant advantage over older workers in their familiarity with technology. More concerning than statistics, though, is the perceived breach of the implicit social contract between American universities and prospective students, which for a generation has justified increased costs with the superior living standards for graduates. While living standards overall are constantly improving, the link between a college degree and a remunerative career is more tenuous than ever.

The WSJ article is especially interesting in our current political climate. Young voters this election cycle have been particularly vocal about their financial anxieties, primarily involving the price of attending college. Bernie Sanders, who like the most of the left would like America to emulate Europe, has long advocated for an adoption of the continental system of higher education. Sanders’ plan involves making all college totally debt free, paid for in theory by a tax on financial transactions.

His website states that “In a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world,” but the evidence suggests that such a plan would hinder this goal rather than further it. For all the issues in American higher education, our school’s stack up incredibly well against the rest of the world.  According to the Shanghai ranking system, eight of the top 10 universities in the world are American, with only the ancient and prestigious Cambridge and Oxford universities cracking the list from the rest of the world. American schools draw huge numbers of foreign students, who come seeking a college experience that is simply not offered for the majority of students elsewhere in the world. We pay more for school than most counties – at least outright; European schools are financed through taxes that the American public would never accept – but consumer choice has forced colleges to adapt their models in order to better serve the public, which in turn has led a superior product.

As is the case in any market that is at least partially free, there is also a wide range of choice among American universities. While costs have generally increased, it is still possible to get one’s education degree cheaply. For example, costs can be cut by attending junior colleges for a year or two, or by attending a commuter school. While this may deprive the student of the typical “college experience,” it is typical only in America. Few European schools have built-in housing, and most students live in nearby apartments paid for themselves or their parents. Similarly, European and Asian schools have poorer facilities, fewer professors per student and far fewer amenities than many of their American counterparts.

If you want to see what a state-run education college education system would look like in America, our high schools provide something of a preview. While our colleges and universities are the best in the world, our high schools lag significantly behind in test scores and graduation rates. In a market dominated by the state, consumers are less able to find a product that suits them. Because of the limited – or in many cases nonexistent – range of options, many parents are forced to send their children to failing schools. Under the auspice of the state, universities will lose the incentive to try to improve their product. There are many problems with American colleges on the whole, and affordability is high on that list. The quickest path to amelioration is through increasing the range of available options, not creating an essentially uniform system through the artless hand of the state.

Lucas Coughlin is a Collegian Columnist and can be reached at [email protected].