Analysis: Free College For All

Unless you’ve sworn off all news media, you’re no doubt aware that self-described Democratic Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, and other members of the DNC, campaign on the idea that college education should be treated essentially like an extended public high school—paid for via tax dollars, and open to everyone.

Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

I won’t go into the weeds of analyzing Bernie’s “College for All” plan, or how he intends to pay for it. You can click here for a Vox article which goes over his plan, and that of Elizabeth Warren to some extent.

I also won’t elaborate on the fact that some in congress infamously didn’t even know they were the ones doing the lending in the first place, when for instance Senator Maxine Waters attempted to blame banks for what she and her party perceived as a student-loan debt problem. But this should at least give you pause that such ignorance is not ideal from the people you’re asking to take over education altogether.

Maxine Waters

We libertarians are generally against any plan that says person A should pay for goods or services consumed by person B; this is no different. It’s simply immoral, in our view. While I accept “immoral” is a subjective term, please allow me to explain.

If I buy a widget from you, I get a widget (a positive action), and you get the money you asked for (also positive). That’s a net positive (moral) transaction.

If I just give you money (positive) because I’m being charitable, but you don’t offer me a good or service in return (negative), that’s a net neutral transaction. The positive and negative cancel each other out.

But if I take from you by fiat (negative), and you receive something without offering a quid pro quo (also negative), that’s a net negative, or immoral transaction.

But, as was said, the morality issue is subjective, so now let’s talk about a few of the facts that should be considered if you don’t take issue with the morality of it all.

The Need Isn’t There:

This study from Georgetown University estimates that approximately 30% of  the jobs next year, will require a college degree, which obviously means that 70% do not.

Georgetown University

As such, more than two-thirds of the labor force, if they went to college, would have essentially made a poor investment—they didn’t need it, and won’t be using it.

As such, it’s not logical to argue that the taxpayers should be pilfered to the tune of $2.2 trillion, if Bernie’s math is to be believed. $1.54 trillion of it will be your tax dollars literally wasted.

While I don’t like to personally attack anyone, Bernie’s math, like any politician’s, is often suspect. If he is wrong, and history is any indication, it’ll most assuredly cost more, not less. Coming in under budget is not government’s forte. I’d like to think that $1.54 trillion wasted, is not something critically-thinking voters would pull the lever for.

The Desire Isn’t There:

Bernie’s argument supposes that everyone wants to go to college, when many don’t. The 70% mentioned earlier aren’t just entry level jobs. The “College For All” crowd would have you believe that these jobs are all careers one can’t make a living with. If someone truly wishes to have a career they can support a family on, they’ll need a college degree.

But skilled trades such as plumbers, mechanics, ot electricians, are crucial jobs that can pay six-figure salaries with enough effort. Lucrative sales jobs, aren’t all that uncommon, either.

But even entry level jobs can become careers to the right person. Every simple call center or food service job has a supervisor or manager; most of which were promoted from within.

Based on the amount of time spent partying, cutting class, and even dropping out voluntarily for non-financial reasons, it’s obvious many of these students are simply not interested in their chosen education. They would be better off, and happier, following a career path they actually wanted.

It’s a cliche that a young adult is forced to go to college when all he/she wanted to do, was be an artist, pursue a skilled trade, or some other alternate career path. So we know many of them don’t want the education when their parents opt to pay for it (free college for them). So why would they want it, if government is paying instead?

Sadly, the issue with such children isn’t their career choices, we need people doing those skilled trades. A world without people to fix all the things we break every day, would fall to its knees. The problem is parents who refuse to believe their child is anything other than the next great doctor or lawyer, and behave as if they’d be ashamed of their child if they chose what they believe is a menial career.

We should support people’s dreams for themselves, not the dreams others have for them—even well-meaning parents.

Not Everyone Needs a Career

One of the poorest assumptions is that everyone needs a career they can support a family with.

However, some people will go to their grave never getting married, and never having children.

Some others will get married, and their spouse will be the main income for their family, while they work a smaller job that pays less, just to add to the overall income of the household.

Some will also choose to cohabitate. They’re not getting married or having children, but they share a home with a roommate, and therefore household costs are split.

All of these options dictate that a high-salary career needing a college degree, simply isn’t necessary for them. And while some of us think that such a life sounds unrewarding, there’s little to no evidence such people are universally more unhappy, and people working a higher-salaried career are more happy. As such, there’s certainly no argument to make we should force others to pay for an education to get them out of that lifestyle.

Bad Economics

The cost of higher education is largely fixed. You have to pay the professors, and build the infrastructure. This is why it costs so much to go in the first place. But if you try to make nearly every child go, then you’re going to need more colleges and professors.

Do you trust that Bernie has factored in the additional costs for all that? Or do you assume like me, that he’s simply making the assumption that the colleges that exist can take all the extra students?

The Devaluation Problem

It also devalues the college degree itself, if everyone has one. This is simple supply and demand.

If I’m an employer who’s hiring, I might have a job that doesn’t require a degree. But that doesn’t mean certain degrees might not be helpful, if for no other reason than to show me this person chose to educate themselves further versus another candidate.

But if everyone has that degree, then the person who would have went to college if it weren’t free, and thus was more motivated and possibly the person I’d prefer, won’t be known to me. They’ll simply look the same on a resume as the others, and I’ll have no inherent reason to believe they’re the better candidate now, making their degree inherently less valuable.

More Bad Economics

We often talk about the problems with Social Security, and misleading unemployment stats by citing the drop in the labor participation rates. As people decide not to work anymore, such as a spouse relying on a working partner, or people retiring after a successful career, we know that this results in less “producers” for the economy making it work.

But if we remove a significant chunk of the 18-24+ year old crowd from the labor force, when they’re at their most energetic, healthy, and strongest, we reduce the labor participation rate significantly of the most able-bodied people. Most people work from 18-65 (47 years), and it’s been estimated that kids are taking nearly 6 years on average to get their degree. So six years off of 47 total years for 70% of the population could add up to an 8-9% loss in labor participation, which is already a problem, when compared to other nations who are out-producing the United States increasingly more as time goes on.

Even More Bad Economics

As more students enter college, you’re seeing more courses, and even majors, with little to no employers in need of those holding such degrees. While philosophy for instance, helps with general critical thinking, other than being a professor teaching philosophy, the want ads aren’t exactly littered with people looking for a full-time philosopher. The liberal arts in general, are notorious for having few career paths after college related to such a degree.

There are several reports like this one from Simple Dollar showing degrees that are proving to be incredibly poor investments, even for those who were truly motivated to get them. But if you hand out educations freely, you can bet the number of useless degrees will not only grow commensurately, the people who didn’t want them, and didn’t learn much getting them, will grow, too.

Summary

While we libertarians always support people wanting to better themselves, the logic of providing free education is dubious at best. The morality of it, is highly questionable as well.

Instead, free markets should be left to do what they do best, providing the best education at the best price for the people who want it.

We also believe people should promote the idea that college isn’t for everyone, and take notice that companies like Google, Facebook, IBM, et al., are starting to realize that there’s a lot of talented people who never have, nor ever will step foot on a college campus.