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Higher Education Watch
The Case Against Free College

From the Manhattan Institute’s Preston Cooper, one of the most clear and concise arguments you will read against arguments for further federal subsidies of higher education:

Advocates of federally funded “free” or “debt-free” college assert that society, as well as the affected individuals, would benefit from moving more students through higher education. Instead, experience in the U.S. and elsewhere suggests that the opposite would happen: more students would enroll in college; a high percentage (a higher percentage, quite possibly, than now, as more ill-prepared students enrolled) would continue to drop out; wage premiums for graduates would decline; colleges that desperately need to improve outcomes for students would face even fewer incentives to reform; and taxpayers would foot a skyrocketing bill.

Read the whole report, which highlights the fact that “only one-third of college enrollees end up in jobs requiring college degrees.” Millions of students are spending tens or hundreds of thousands on college, only to get jobs that they could have technically performed after high school. This isn’t only because many schools fail to provide a high quality education; it’s because, thanks to credential inflation, many employers use the BA as a kind of filtering mechanism—an indication that a person is most likely competent and reliable—even if the job they are trying to fill doesn’t demand any post-secondary skills or knowledge. Needless to say, this is a sign of deep inefficiencies: our economy would be much better off if people were hired based on stuff learned, rather than time served.

The college plans floated by Democratic candidates, by pumping more money and students into higher education system, would exacerbate these inefficiencies. Those plans could be defended on the grounds that expanding access for the underserved is worth this efficiency tradeoff. But it’s important to remember that so many students are going to college today that we have reached the point of diminishing returns. It’s time to try to expand access by shaking up higher education and increasing competition, rather than doubling down on something that seems to be working less and less well.

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  • Blackbeard

    Higher education is a bastion of left/liberal ideology and therefore must and will be supported and funded in every possible way. The lackluster outcomes for students can always be blamed on Republicans.

    • Albert8184

      Exactly.

  • Trevor G

    It looks like the first link is broken.

  • Fat_Man

    If they don’t go to college, how are they going to learn what social justice is and how to fight for it?

    • Albert8184

      Exactly. And that’s the WHOLE motivation for wanting everyone to go to college. Of course, they’ll get rich off it too, but that’s icing on the cake.

  • Andrew Allison

    Mr Cooper’s conclusions are self-evident — we already have a 40% dropout rate for colleges, i.e. far more students than their should be. He failed to mention the only group which would benefit from this influx of the unready, namely college teachers and administrators.

  • Ellen

    The real solution is to bring back vocational education which was largely destroyed as part of the “reforms” of education since the 1960’s. The idea was that Voc-Ed was being used as a warehouse for black and hispanic students who weren’t academically prepared for a more traditional higher education. There was some truth to this, but at this point it is irrelevant. Most American students are not interested in or capable of doing real “academic” work, which is what should be taught in college. They need an education that can get them a job, and that means an upgraded and updated form of Voc-Ed in high school and community college, which is where most of them should be.

    Downsizing the liberal arts colleges, however, means getting rid of lots of tenured faculty, especially of the 1960’s and 70’s types. These are the people who brought us the wonderful world of political correctness. They do not want to be RIFfed out of a job, even if many of the rest of us suffer from this reality. So, they continue the old system of pushing semi-literate Facebook devotees into liberal arts programs, from which they do not gain literacy or job skills. They do acquire huge student loans, however, which many cannot pay back, and now we have yet another bubble phenomenon. That is really what is going on in higher ed.

    Maybe President Donald Trump will take a broom to this crowd, along with the investment bankers and the leadership of both political parties. They all need to be swept into the dustbin of history.

    • Tom

      Donald Trump is that crowd, which is the problem with his presidency that outweighs all the others.

    • Fat_Man

      President Donald Trump is not going to take a broom to the crowd who has floated him through his many bankruptcies.

  • Palinurus

    So let me get this straight. Colleges, which use tests for gatekeeping and ranking, are failing to efficiently recognize job skills. So, the solution is hiring based on “Stuff Learned,” which would presumably be determined by another test. And that test would probably look like other so-called tests of “Stuff Learned,” like the ACT or SAT or professional credentialing tests, which are subject to gaming and the subject of well-deserved scorn. I guess if your idea of efficiency is one test rather than many, then you have a point.

    As anyone who has ever been responsible for hiring knows, a good-enough hire, especially at an entry-level position, is not simply someone who “Knows Stuff”; you want the guy who can Get Stuff Done — like showing up for work, getting it done on time, making decisions on his own, and having certain personal skills, such as the ability to work with others and an openness to learning on the job the Stuff He Really Needs to Know.

    The real, and really important, crises in education should be apparent from this blog’s frequent Jeremiads about Obama’s foreign policy. That the quintessential product of some of the world’s finest universities should perform as he has should be a Sputnik-moment for American Universities. To put it bluntly, the KGB is far better at recognizing and training leaders than Harvard.

    There certainly is a problem with recognizing the skills needed to do jobs, starting with the highest job in the land and including the equally important job of citizens in choosing that leader. And if you think more STEM education will solve this problem, go read a decent history about Vietnam to see how effective “system management” and other scientific management principles worked out for Bundy and the rest of the “best and brightest” who managed that war. If you want to educate citizens and leaders and workers, why not just do away with college altogether and subject all youths to the draft. I think a few years in the army or navy would do more than seven or eight years at Ivy League college in instilling the qualities really needed in the workforce and the public square.

    • Ellen

      Right on. I agree with every word in your Jeremiad. Especially, the following.

      “To put it bluntly, the KGB is far better at recognizing and training leaders than Harvard.”

      • Fat_Man

        Harvards purpose is not to produce leaders. Leaders are dangerous. Harvard wants to produce nomenklatura who can duckspeak goodthink.

        • Albert8184

          Bingo.

    • Jim__L

      Random reactions…

      The problem with this approach is most places don’t really bother teaching anyone the Stuff He Really Needs to Know. Training is a cost center, and all.

      It’s certainly possible in a STEM field to come up with a test to see if someone can solder, properly hook up a spectrum analyzer, or write a Python script. These tests would not look anything like an ACT or SAT, and probably very little like a credentialing test.

      Does STEM education give people the skills to win wars? Does it honestly need to, if winning wars isn’t in the job description? On a related note, I could probably use this post as a way to test if someone understood the concept of “feature creep”.

      I do agree with you about the usefulness of a general draft, though.

    • GS

      How can you be so wrong in confusing what are essentially IQ tests [like SAT] with the “stuff learned” tests like professional certifications [say, bar exam]?

  • GS

    Charles Murray, “Real Education”, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, “the Bell Curve”.
    College [understood as advanced training in the cognitive techniques and learning information above the level attainable by the majority of a population] is by definition not for everyone – only something from one-sixth to one-tenth of the age cohort is college material.
    Making the college education tuition-free would be possible [why, the United States Military Academy at West Point is an example of such a college], but it would require a strong selection at the entrance and indenturing the graduates for several years to repay the costs.

    • Ellen

      Exactly, and that is precisely what no Democratic politician would ever do. They want to expand the ranks of college students without selection criteria and without cost to the students. In other words, another give-away.

  • Kevin

    Expand Griigs vs. Duke Power to cover college degrees. Make it illegal for employers to ask, or potential employees to volunteer, what school they attended or degree they earned. Instead require them to limit questions to evidence of mastery of skills required for the position.

    • GS

      Griggs is an abomination, and should have long been overturned. By the way, nothing is easier than to fail [at will] everyone but the eminently overqualified in a setup proposed by you. Why, I would give an applicant an example of something already done [and failed, so no intellectual property chicanery would be involved] in a given workplace a few years prior, present it as an ongoing hypothetical, and ask the applicant how s/he would be attacking it, asking him/her to think aloud. And I would be timing the response.

  • Pait

    That’s a convoluted argument. The argument in favor of subsidies for higher education, on the other hand, is straightforward: better educated workers are more productive members of society, and the benefits of their education to society as a whole are larger than the monetary gains they receive directly. Education is a public good.

    The latter, simpler argument is supported by the US experience of offering free high school and, since the 1940s college, to a large fraction of the population, which resulted in fast economic growth; as well as by the more recent experiences of successful East Asian countries.

    Between a speculative argument and a simpler one that is supported by evidence, the latter should in any rational conversation be considered the more plausible one.

    • Anthony

      Concise and removed of ideological ballast, thanks.

    • GS

      Cast not your pearls before swine.

    • Tom

      The law of diminishing returns argues otherwise–and the evidence provided by the experience of the Euros is in.

      • Pait

        On the contrary, European economies caught up with the US (to a smaller or larger extent depending on which country) at the same time as higher education became as widespread in Europe as in America.

        That is not to say that completely tuition-free education is the way to go, or that subsidies don’t have drawbacks. The drawbacks are quite obvious, and the advantages of having students pay for at least some part of the cost of their education seem quite clear. But altogether the European experience indicates that indeed higher education is a public good and it supports the case for state subsidies.

        • Tom

          Not…really. Sorry, but the ridiculously high youth unemployment rate seems to argue otherwise.

          • Pait

            Western Europe as a whole has had productivity comparable to that of the US for decades. Unemployment is a short-term phenomenon related to demand, and fiscal and monetary policies, and uncorrelated with general education levels – notice for instance that unemployment varies widely among European countries. Moreover, unemployment IS negatively correlated with education.

            So the previous argument stands, and your objection is not relevant.

          • Tom

            Objection very relevant. This unemployment has been going on for years, and is frequently a long-term phenomenon for the individuals involved.
            The problem, which you should know, can be expressed very pithily: Some people are educated beyond their intelligence level, which does no one any good. Free college means this will occur with increasing frequency, unless you are willing to consent to tracking from, say, middle school forward.

          • Pait

            Education decreases unemployment. Even more so in Europe than in the US. Moreover, unemployment or not, Western European productivity and income are comparable to the US. The correlation between education and income is irrefutable.

          • Tom

            With all due respect, that makes about as much sense as “increased homeownership=increased wealth” idea that led to the housing bubble here in the US.
            It should be noted that there is also an irrefutable correlation that the marriage rate in Alabama is linked to the consumption of whole milk in the United States.

          • Pait

            Your argument is not compelling. The 2nd phrase doesn’t even make sense.

          • Tom

            That is correct. That was my point.

          • Pait

            I thought so. I edited the post to ensure you can understand that the 1st phrase doesn’t either.

          • Tom

            And it still doesn’t work. Sorry. The fact is that you are assuming that credential=education.
            It doesn’t.

          • Pait

            No I am not. As I wrote above, I repeat: “Well, the correlation between college “credentials”, as you prefer to call them, and wealth of the nations is indisputable. True deep real education is much harder to measure – tests may tell part of the story but are very far from being a good indicator of knowledge. I suspect that, if it could be measured, it would be found to correlate with credentials, although of course not perfectly.”

            The argument is that college attendance, which is hard to measure, correlates with individual and national wealth. This is an indisputable fact. Now you could argue that the causation is reverse – that more affluent people prefer to spend their wealth in credentials – but since this argument would run into some factual complications with temporal causality, the burden of proof with be on you. Incidentally, the argument would place you solidly in the company of the far left, which considers formal pure education, as opposed to technical training, as little more than a status symbol.

          • Tom

            Not really. Large chunks of the right do so too–and, it should be pointed here, there are vast differences between secondary and tertiary education. We have hit the law of diminishing returns already in our expansion of tertiary education, and it’s only going to get worse.

          • Pait

            It stands to reason that here exists a fraction of university-educated people at which returns from education decrease. That the fraction in the US is at or above the level is a matter of speculation. I am not aware of any sound proof that it is so, but it is at least conceivable. It does not alter the fact that higher education is a public good, and that state support for universities increases the well-being of society as a whole.

            As for the far right and the far left sharing absurd and, dare I say, mean-spirited irrational beliefs, I am aware of the phenomenon.

          • Tom

            Higher education is a public good only insofar as it enhances the welfare of the public, which should be a tautology, but apparently isn’t.
            The fact is that, over the long term, “free college” only enhances the welfare of university administrators and educational bureaucrats, to everyone else’s detriment. Whether or not making policy based on this is “mean-spirited” is left up to the reader to decide.

          • Pait

            The preponderance of the evidence indicates that higher education does enhance the welfare of the public. I will not repeat the facts stated above on how countries that chose to expand higher education moved quickly up in the economic rankings, while those who did not follow this path did not.

            The burden of the proof is on the contrary argument. Just restating that “higher education is not a public good”, in opposition to factual observations, does not work as an argument.

          • Tom

            (Sighs)
            The fact that I didn’t actually say “higher education is not a public good” has apparently escaped you, but that’s on you, not me.
            The expansion of higher education is only of benefit insofar as it brings in people who actually have the capability and training to benefit from higher education. The early education reforms–the GI Bill, et al. did so.
            At the point where you are shoving in people who do not possess the capability or the training to benefit from higher education, you are doing the public a disservice. That is what this “free college” mess, given the bias towards academia present in all high school programs, is designed to do. And it’s really stupid. If we were willing to track students towards academic or vocational programs, this might be a more viable option, but we don’t do that.
            In other words, circumstances matter, and our present circumstances militate against your proposal.

          • Pait

            If it is a public good, then public subsidies are justified. That is my argument.

            On the other hand, if higher education “only enhances the welfare of bureaucrats”, as you claimed, it is not a public good. I disagree with the premise, but I do not find useful to argue both sides of a contradictions, as you do.

          • Tom

            I am impressed with your ability to conflate, in your mind, “free college for all” and “higher education.” It must be nice.

          • Pait

            Ah! I claim that college education is a public good that deserves public subsidies, therefore I must be for free college for all. There are some people who would not benefit from college, therefore all of my argument is incorrect.

            Again: although there must be some point where the returns from education are diminishing, the burden of proof is on those who claim they have already been surpassed, which is contradicted by the recent history of economic growth of all nations. Just stating that “free college enhances the welfare of bureaucrats therefore college loans are bad for society” does not pass the test.

            I suggest you reread the whole thread, and watch the Monty Python sketch.

          • Tom

            Well, that is what your argument seems to be, given the current conditions where there is a push for everyone to go to college. In those conditions, what I said is true. There are many people who would not benefit from college.
            The burden of proof, by the way, is always on the person seeking to change the status quo.

          • Pait

            No, the push is most certainly NOT to get ALL high schoolers into college – it is to increase the percentage of students who attend and are able to complete. There is not talk of increasing the number of college students by 50% overnight; the point of making community college free is to remove a barrier to entry and diminish attrition.

            I really suggest you watch the Monty Python sketch.

          • Tom

            You haven’t been in a high school recently, have you? The push is always to get more kids into higher education. The more, the better.
            And I’ve already seen it, by the way.

          • Pait

            Just came back from a high school.

            The talk was “go to college if that’s what you want by all means, but there are options for every person”.

            Watch Monty Python again then.

          • Tom

            I’m glad your kid’s high school is more balanced than mine. Because that never got more than lip service.

          • Pait

            Perhaps liberal districts have a more, well, liberal attitude about what futures kids can choose for themselves. (Mine is very liberal, statistically I assume that yours can at most match.)

          • Tom

            Somehow I doubt your premise.

          • Pait

            May well be wrong. I was just speculating. There could be many others factors involved. But perhaps this is part of the explanation. It is not a premise, just speculation.

          • Jim__L

            … And the high schools push every single kid to want college, because those that don’t go to college must be servile to those “experts” that do.

            No thanks. Are you wondering why Trump is winning? You shouldn’t be.

          • Pait

            No I am not. It is abundantly clear that Trump’s style of irrational argument by screaming is appealing to many people. Mainly those that neither care whether a person would be good for the country as president, nor whether their arguments make logical sense.

          • Jim__L

            If irrational screaming were a qualification in most voters’ eyes, Howard Dean would be our president.

            Have a look at WigWag’s reply to the current Trump post up here at VM. I know that’s not as much fun as simply poking at Trump supporters, but you can keep on poking them right up until they put their guy in the White House.

          • Pait

            I saw the article on Trump. Quite reasonable, including the mentions to the mainstream Democrat and Republican explanations of the Trump phenomenon. An American version of Argentina’s Perón altogether, if I may summarize it.

            I think you mean WigWag’s rant or wag or whatever that begins with “Mead and the media and intelligent people in general have no clue about anything only idiots like myself do”. Yes, it goes a long way to explain Trump voters. Perhaps not in the manner the author had intended, but then perhaps the point was just to wig a wag, not to write something anyone would actually read.

          • Jim__L

            WigWag appears to be a Trump supporter himself. Are you seriously trying to convince me that people who do not support Trump can more effectively describe his appeal than people who do?

          • Pait

            I’m just saying you can observe a lot by watching. Often it so happens that an argument reveals more about its author than about the theme under discussion.

          • Jim__L

            The burden of proof that a policy enhances public good is on **anyone who wants to impose any public cost whatsoever**. This cost can be monetary, or it can be in terms of freedom.

            This includes any increased increment of marginal cost anyone has proposed.

          • Pait

            I do not think you followed the gist of the argument to which you are responding.

    • f1b0nacc1

      Apparently you don’t see the difference between credentialed and educated. Free college for all gives you a more credentialed population, but hardly a better educated one. More credentialed workers are not likely to be more productive ones (and in fact one can make the argument that they are less so), and while education is a public good, it is not necessarily served by providing infinite amounts of it to unwilling or uninterested recipients.
      If you want to compare the current American educational system (which is an unabashed failure) to the experiences of East Asian countries, then I suppose you want to adopt their policies of test-heavy, highly utilitarian educational systems, with little beyond basic skills directed to all but the elites? There aren’t a whole lot of sociology or grievance studies programs in Japan, for instance.

      • Pait

        Well, the correlation between college “credentials”, as you prefer to call them, and wealth of the nations is indisputable. True deep real education is much harder to measure – tests may tell part of the story but are very far from being a good indicator of knowledge. I suspect that, if it could be measured, it would be found to correlate with credentials, although of course not perfectly.

        Your statement that the American educational system is a a failure is unsupported. American universities, although not free of their share of problems, are highly regarded throughout the world, as as their alumni. And the fraction of Americans who receive some sort of education is still among the largest in the world. I would say that your proposition is opposed by the vast majority of past and future students throughout the world.

        The University of Tokyo, to give the example of the generally highest regarded institution in East Asia, has strong programs in the humanities. Although it is true that Asian education emphasizes the sciences and testing, your last statement must be regarded as false.

        • f1b0nacc1

          Correlation is not causation….a phrase that the truly educated often recognize.
          Regarding the value of the American education system (you refer only to higher education, I rather doubt you would try to defend the rest of it), only the elite schools have the reputation you assign to them, and even those are often living off of their past glories. As an alum of several of those schools, I may indeed be the exception, but I rather doubt it…
          Finally, Tokyo does indeed have an excellent humanities program, it is not what they are known for, and they certainly do not support the silliness of grievance studies or the various po-mo indulgences. Asians are (not yet) foolish enough to waste their opportunities on that sort of tripe. I notice you didn’t address the question of rampant elitism at these schools, and indeed, among Asian attitudes towards education in general.
          I have cast enough pearls before you…..I am finished

          • Pait

            Not only the elite schools. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of state schools in the US have a very strong international reputation. Of course the less competitive schools are, well, less competitive, but they serve a different role: to provide some sort of higher education to people who otherwise (and elsewhere) would not be able to achieve it. In that sense they run counter the elitism that prevails or used to prevail in many other rich countries. Those 3rd or 4th tier schools, so to speak, are exactly the ones for which subsidies are most effective, because education for the masses, even more than for the elites, is a public good.

            As for elementary and high school, some states and cities have schools that are as good as those of the best performing countries in the world. There is a problem of equity, specially in low tax states and in poorer districts. Good schools cost money. But that is unrelated to the point under discussion.

            Trying to pull rank with your several prestigious degrees or familiarity with scientific jargon is both unnecessary and ineffective.

          • Fat_Man

            The arrow of causation runs the other way. The US is a rich country that can afford to waste a trillion dollars on miseducating its children. The educational system is an effect not a cause.

          • Pait

            We’ve been through that argument here. I’ll copy what I wrote below for your convenience of reference:

            “”Well, the correlation between college “credentials”, as you prefer to call them, and wealth of the nations is indisputable. True deep real education is much harder to measure – tests may tell part of the story but are very far from being a good indicator of knowledge. I suspect that, if it could be measured, it would be found to correlate with credentials, although of course not perfectly.”

            The argument is that college attendance, which is hard to measure, correlates with individual and national wealth. This is an indisputable fact. Now you could argue that the causation is reverse – that more affluent people prefer to spend their wealth in credentials – but since this argument would run into some factual complications with temporal causality, the burden of proof with be on you. Incidentally, the argument would place you solidly in the company of the far left, which considers formal pure education, as opposed to technical training, as little more than a status symbol.”

            The fact that one needs to repeat things so often as to double quote certainly says something about the nature of internet conversations.

          • Fat_Man

            Blah. Blah. Blah.

          • Pait

            That is a great argument. Probably the best you’ve made.

  • Albert8184

    But… the desire to send everyone to college for free has nothing to do with helping them get jobs. It has everything to do with INDOCTRINATING them to be “global citizens”. The establishment Left doesn’t give a hoot about “traditional jobs” and all that sort of “bourgeois mentality” stuff. They’re trying to “transform” the country.

  • Beauceron

    “It’s time to shake up higher education rather than doubling down on something that seems to be working less and less well”

    This assumes the focus is on the students and producing as an end-product a student that is well rounded and well educated.

    It appears to me that the primary goal of higher education has become deeply politicized. The goal is not to produce thoughtful, well educated students, but to churn out people who believe in the “right” things. What is “right” and what is “well educated”? That which reflects the views of their professors.

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