Thursday, March 31, 2016

Free college

A San Antonio city councilman has suggested the first 2 years of community college in Bexar County, Texas, be free. Two questions to ask:

  1. Is 2 years of free college what high school graduates need?
  2. Can Bexar County community colleges supply enough degrees at half the price without diminishing their value?

The second question is easier to answer, because the answer is no, unless the colleges spend way more money on teachers and staff than they are willing to spend. If a degree is supposed to be worth something, it has to cost something to produce. Selling degrees (or degree halves) for free overburdens the manufacturer and/or diminishes their value.

My father-in-law is a community college teacher. He says loose enrollment standards are killing scores, raising attrition, and demoralizing teachers, who are burdened with the task of raising graduation rates. Those problems would be exacerbated by a glut of teenagers with zero buy-in and with 2 years to kill. It’s true that cost is a barrier to college enrollment, but that’s a problem solved by scholarships and cost-cutting. Cost-eliminating worsens the problem created by loose enrollment standards: students taking their education unseriously. You could do what the public schools do and just graduate them, but eventually the lack of skills that they’ve failed to learn will drag down productivity, whether they become dependents or twiddle their thumbs at work.

The first question is more important because it implies a bigger question has already been asked and answered. What is the bigger question? It’s different for everyone, but for most people it’s, How do I make money?

The economic establishment prizes credentials, of which a degree is the prime example, as essential to breaking into the middle class and beyond. But the official measures of success have gotten away from what best serves people in real life. The degree, not an education, is the end itself. Most people who go to college go because it’s what you’re supposed to do after high school. Personally, they don’t know why they’re there.

George Gilder writes in Wealth and Poverty:

Characterized by a worship of degrees, diplomas, tests, credentials, and qualifications, this system has created a schoolmarm meritocracy that steadily extends the reach of its primary rule: you cannot pass if you cannot parse; if you cannot put the numbers in the right boxes at the requisite speed; and if you cannot perform in the accustomed academic mode.

The question college prospects should ask is, How can I contribute to society? What can I do to give to others to enhance their lives and create wealth? That’s a supply-side question that isn’t answered all the time—not even most of the time—by a college degree.

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