Designated Driver and I don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to questions of government spending, but I think he raised an extremely important and (to my knowledge) under-discussed point in his take on this matter. Whether or not a college education should be free has a lot to do with the return on investment for taxpayers and students alike. After all, what is the point of throwing hard-earned tax dollars into a broken system? Flooding the higher education system is no guarantee that it will produce a more productive work force. And getting a college degree is far from a guarantee that a decent paying job will follow. When you hear complaints about the job market from both employers and graduates, you know something is wrong.
Given the premise that the system is indeed as dysfunctional as Designated Driver suggests it is, it seems even more absurd to fund free college with tax money with the end goal of increasing enrollment! Dealing with what will likely be a massive boom in student populations won’t be an easy (or cheap) task for colleges and universities. How high will faculty costs soar? How much larger will class sizes be? Is inflating class sizes more than they already have been actually going to help students out overall? Will it, as Pappa Bear says, “water it down”? Is our infrastructure prepared to handle the increase in enrollment? Will a large increase in the number of eager young Americans brandishing bachelor’s degrees affect the significance with which we regard those very degrees? The practical problems we would face if college education became free are seemingly endless.
Though it hurts my heart to discuss education as though its sole purpose is to spin the cogs of the capitalist machine, I have to be honest; despite the noblest efforts of liberal arts professors, that is what college in America is. Like it or not. Even still, when considered purely on principle, this is a straight forward question. Of course public education should be free! You would have to be an elitist prick to argue that one’s economic class should determine whether or not they should be able to access the primary means of upward mobility in this country that is the higher education system. We’ve all heard the stats about the difference in median annual income between high school and college grads. It is undeniably clear to anyone with a pulse that going to college drastically increases your odds of earning a much higher salary than you would otherwise. It’s not a matter of equality, but one of equity. Everyone should have proper access to the means of economic advancement.
Now some people might still argue that, with all of the loans and grants available, everyone actually does have access to higher education today. But let’s be real. For people working full time and struggling to stay afloat, getting a meaningful college education can require a person to shoulder superhuman responsibilities, but it is possible. You just gotta do what you gotta do. Just take out those loans. Who cares if you’re $60,000 in debt by the time you step off that stage? It’s an investment in your future and if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to pay it off when you get that high-paying job.
Oh, wait. Did I say when? I thought the system was broken. If Designated Driver is right on this, and I happen to think he is, then we have a major problem on our hands. To provide free education is to compel taxpayers to invest in failure. On the other hand, to keep the status quo is to expect some of the most marginalized, disenfranchised, and hardest working citizens of this country to risk money they don’t even have on an investment that is rapidly climbing in cost while even more rapidly declining in its promise to return.
I want to be clear, because I know at this point it might appear that I’m contradicting myself. If the system is broken and not worth investing in at all, then why am I suggesting that a college education is the primary means of upward mobility? An education can’t be both essential and worthless. Staying true to my background in philosophy, I’m going to do what all philosophers do when they find themselves in a jam: claim nuance and make distinctions.
Right now, in the real world, in America, college remains a necessary tool for the average person to earn a middle class wage. On average, this is the state of affairs that we can see today. Those dumbass graphics you see on Facebook showing all of the successful people who never went to college are the exception, not the rule. The viability of college as an investment is an entirely different beast. The riskiness of taking out loans for college is not a simple state of affairs, and cannot be averaged into simple statements that take into account all of the variable factors at play. What we can describe, though, are trends. Any Neanderthal who bothers to step out of his cave every once in a while can see that the value of a college degree just ain’t what it used to be.
My main point here is this: just because a college degree is worth less, doesn’t mean a high school diploma is worth more. It’s not crazy to suggest that a college degree is highly valuable relative to a high school diploma, but the college degree is less valuable relative to the costs of obtaining it. If that is true, then we are facing a situation in which there are no good alternatives for low income students. It only makes financial sense for the already well off to risk taking out high interest government loans with slimming hopes of easy repayment on the other side. I am not claiming any sort of causal connection between the soundness of the investment in today’s loan climate and income polarization, but the condition of higher education which I am attempting to illustrate makes a lot of sense in light of the widening income gap.
Holy shit. Have I digressed, or what? Should college education be free? I don’t know. This kind of problem requires a profoundly creative solution; one that accounts for all of the practical difficulties of funding it as well as the implications it would have on the value of education as a whole, but at its core seeks to achieve the highest standard of social justice. To come up with a solution like that, we’d need an army of highly educated individuals; ideally, ones with some personal experience of the challenges that face low income students seeking to further their education and move up in society. Hmmm….how can we get some more of those….?
By The Rightful Heir to all Shotgun Privileges