The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing

 

College-Students-opt-1024x682Free things are rarely ever free. The Left is fond of saying that Canada’s socialized health care system is “free” for all its citizens. It certainly is, so long as you’re a Canadian who doesn’t pay taxes. In the same spirit, Hillary’s college plan would mean that students may not have to borrow for tuition, however much the federal government would be borrowing on their behalf. No prizes for guessing who gets the bill in the end. As the Wall Street Journal reports:

Hillary Clinton is proposing an expansive program aimed at enabling students to attend public colleges and universities without taking on loans for tuition, her attempt to address a source of anxiety for American families while advancing one of the left’s most sweeping new ideas.

The plan – dubbed the “New College Compact” and estimated to cost $350 billion over 10 years – would fundamentally reshape the federal government’s role in higher education by offering new federal money, but with strings attached.

Hillary Clinton’s approach – using government to make something “cheaper” – fails basic economics. When economic actors make decisions, they do so not just on the basis of cost but on the basis of value. In purchasing a good or service, we value what we are buying more than the cost.

Let’s cast our glance a bit wider afield than America. In Nigeria, the cost and value debate has been clarified to its essentials:

According to the international development crowd, these [private] schools shouldn’t exist – after all, the governments in these areas provide schooling at no charge. Why would the poorest of the world’s poor pay for something they could get for free?

The answer, of course, is that they know they get what they pay for. As one father in poverty-stricken Makoko, Nigeria put it:

“Going to the public school here in Nigeria, particularly in this area in Lagos State, is just… wasting the time of day… because they don’t teach them anything. The difference is clear… the children of the private school can speak very well, they know what they are doing but there in the public [schools], the children are abandoned.”

While most American two- and four-year colleges aren’t quite as bad as Nigerian primary schools – not yet, anyway – we run into the same problem. It doesn’t matter if college tuition is “free” if the value they provide is non-existent or even negative. Nor is tuition the sole or even the main cost of college. In addition to room and board, there is that most overlooked of costs: opportunity cost.

Taking a four-year degree means spending four years not doing something else. That would include starting a business, acquiring a practical skill, or working. In Brideshead Revisited, Rex Mottram, the Canadian money man on the make, memorably dismisses university education: “No, I was never there. It just means you start life three years behind the other fellow.”

Evelyn Waugh, of course, does not intend us to admire Mottram. Mocking the value of an Oxbridge degree is suppose to be further proof that the character is an insensate parvenu. It flows naturally with the line later in the novel when Mottram, seeking to become a Catholic, confounds his instructor Father Mowbray. Rex’s difficultly in grasping the catechism is so challenging that it does not “correspond to any degree of paganism known to the missionaries.” Yet perhaps, in hindsight, Rex Mottram had a point about university education.

The finer graces of a traditional liberal arts education would have been lost on Rex Mottram, or Lieutenant Hooper, or many of those now packed into America’s college campuses. It is a lovely notion that the young at college are being elevated by Milton and instructed by Newton. Some no doubt are. They are rare enough to be admired. For most, a college education today is a very expensive, very crude signalling mechanism to employers. Governments should not be in the business of subsidizing the HR departments of Fortune 500 companies.

Universities are not the place for vocational training or taxpayer-subsidized bacchanalia. If the idea of a university is to survive into the twenty-first century, it must be as a community of scholars, real or virtual. A place where a comparatively small number in the arts and sciences pursue deep and careful learning. Other needs have other places and other methods.

This vision, which is roughly the pre-GI Bill reality of university education, has been distorted by seven decades of government intervention. Under the heavy hand of the state, the university ceased to be a place where the best is thought and said. Instead it has become an increasingly worthless rubber stamp of admission to the American middle class. The Clinton college plan will simply reinforce this tawdry and disingenuous process.

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  1. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    And we thought inflation in college costs was high before.  Wait til it’s free.

    • #1
  2. SEnkey Inactive
    SEnkey
    @SEnkey

    Thank you for an excellent post. I agree, the more universities seek money and mass enrollment, the less value they offer. I attended a small liberal arts college, and got a great education. My professors challenged me and I enjoyed finding peers who were also interested in learning. Still, there were those who were there wasting space or time, it is a shame that so many of tax dollars went to subsidize their lost years.

    • #2
  3. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Richard Anderson: Governments should not be in the business of subsidizing the HR departments of Fortune 500 companies.

    Universities are not the place for vocational training or taxpayer-subsidized bacchanalia.

    This^

    Richard Anderson: It just means you start life three years behind the other fellow.”

    Especially if what you are going to do, or end up doing didn’t require the learning the University required.

    When it’s free, many students will choose it, whether they need it or not.

    Thanks for this post.

    • #3
  4. John Penfold Member
    John Penfold
    @IWalton

    This is an attempt to pull kids back into traditional education where they can be shaped as our leaders want but mostly it’s an effort to delay at least for a few years the inevitable revolution that will decentralize education as we’ve never imagined.  We can now have access to the best teachers and  lecturers on earth on any topic, and interact with serious students around the world at a fraction of the cost of even subsidized public colleges.   It’s just a matter of organizing accreditation and degrees. And it will happen and the more outrageous the costs the sooner it will happen.  The revolution threatens tenure, bad teachers at all levels, and administrators so liberals have many powerful allies to help them stop the revolution.

    • #4
  5. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    John Penfold: The revolution threatens tenure, bad teachers at all levels, and administrators so liberals have many powerful allies to help them try to stop the revolution.

    FTFY.

    • #5
  6. Wiley Inactive
    Wiley
    @Wiley

    If everyone goes to college the standards must be lowered to “average” and “higher education” just becomes the 13th grade.

    • #6
  7. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    College is a requirement for nearly all knowledge-based careers these days. In fact, an applicant can’t get through a computer screener without one. For some careers such as sales, employers look at a degree not as an indicator of what the person knows as much as an indicator of the person’s character.

    It is true that if people have some money or access to it through wealthy parents or relatives, they can start their own businesses. Or if they have some extraordinary talent they could leverage it to support themselves eventually. Or if they are willing to do something few people are such as cleaning out septic system tanks (I knew a guy who made $1,000 a day because he was willing to do that!).

    But the vast majority of people want to be able to do something for which the working conditions are good (inside, for example, rather than at the top of utility pole in the middle of a blizzard), the pay is decent and steady, and the work is not monotonous.  To my knowledge, most of those jobs require a college degree these days.

    I’m not saying everyone needs one. I’m just saying that education for the sake of a career path–even an as-yet-undetermined career path–needs to be discussed separately from basic liberal-arts, non-career-specific education–and frankly, there’s not much education being bought these that is not career oriented.

    • #7
  8. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    In other words, if we want fewer people going to college as a way to secure their financial future, then we need to rethink secondary school tracks.

    And that’s a little scary to me–I don’t like the idea of government schools tracking kids into career paths when those kids are in elementary and high school.

    Whether  a student needs college or not depends on what he or she wants to do with his or her life.

    As a parent, I didn’t see too many kids in high school who had a clear notion of what the career world would look like for them. (Of course, I live in an urban area, not a rural agrarian area.)

    I like the co-op programs at Northeastern University and the Rochester Institute of Technology for kids without a hefty bank account (that is, most kids).  There are not enough co-op programs in the rest of the colleges and universities in this country. If I could make one change in higher education, it would be to develop more of those programs. They are successful, sustainable, and productive. I have so much respect for them.

    • #8
  9. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I wish that the middle and high schools would spend as much time creating life path scenarios that do not include college and that start upon graduation from high school as they spend on getting kids into college.

    A sizable group of high school kids cannot go to college either because they are effectively homeless at 18 due to divorce agreements or foster (family or professional) care arrangements or because they don’t have good grades or because they don’t have any money.

    This is a group of kids we really neglect and that we could capture academically in high school if we met their needs for realizing financial security and independence after they leave school. The college-bound kids are full of hope and ambition. So they work hard in high school. They see their future. The other kids can’t see their future, and certainly not how school fits into their future, so they drop out emotionally and mentally.

    I think this is a fixable problem. We need the will to fix it.

    • #9
  10. Randy Webster Member
    Randy Webster
    @RandyWebster

    I went to a big high school in Prince George’s County, MD (my dad was stationed at Andrews).  About 1/3 of the students were in a vocational track, with the building and facilities to support them.  I don’t recall anyone looking down on the vocational track students.

    • #10
  11. danok1 Member
    danok1
    @danok1

    MarciN: College is a requirement for nearly all knowledge-based careers these days. In fact, an applicant can’t get through a computer screener without one.

    and

    MarciN: To my knowledge, most of those jobs require a college degree these days.

    The sad fact is that you don’t need a college degree to do most of these jobs, but the employer requires you to have one. Do you really need a degree to be a file clerk, or work in an MIS department? Or to take a sales job? Seriously, your typical office job doesn’t require a degree. The degree is the modern equivalent of the HS diploma circa 1960: certification of basic literacy/employability.

    IMHO, the only fields where a four-year (or advanced) degree is a real necessity are engineering, the hard sciences, and medicine.

    • #11
  12. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Wiley:If everyone goes to college the standards must be lowered to “average” and “higher education” just becomes the 13th grade.

    Yes, 13th grade.

    And so many kids (not all) waste the best opportunities of their HS not gaining the general knowledge that they will pay for out of pocket in community college or university.

    If parents and communities would hold our 15-18 year olds accountable to treating their 10-12 grade teaching/learning opportunities with respect, I think we’d get much further in the discussion of college.

    I leave out 9th grade, because as far as I’m concerned, 13-14 year olds are still immature and unfocused, but 10-12 grade should be a red line in terms of knuckling down on their future, and getting to work.

    That is to say that students should take a more serious approach in the required learning opportunities, as well as those they select by interest. Because, if they do, they will find themselves in a better place for what comes next.

    Entry into Universities is too easy. Universities accept students who need remedial coursework because those students can get loans to pay the inflated cost of credits–which are not even university level. But those students will then need more than 4 years to get the degree.

    They waste good money to learn basics at University tuition rates. They pay university tuition to learn what was offered for FREE just 1-2 years earlier.

    If students knew they would have to pay OUT OF POCKET for remedial level University courses many might be more serious.

    There is no reason for the government to be financing remedial university (or even community college) coursework.

    • #12
  13. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    MarciN: And that’s a little scary to me–I don’t like the idea of government schools tracking kids into career paths when those kids are in elementary and high school.

    MarciN,

    As someone embedded in public school, students and parents track themselves–by the courses they choose, and by their work ethic.

    In a public school, certain courses have specific pre-requisites and grade averages. But even in a public school, parents can get an override for a student take a more advanced class–even if their record doesn’t warrant it.

    Sometimes the override is successful, but most times it is not.

    The student’s work ethic and focus on doing what is asked is part of the path they choose, and part of the path they end up 0n.

    • #13
  14. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    MarciN: I like the co-op programs at Northeastern University and the Rochester Institute of Technology for kids without a hefty bank account (that is, most kids).  There are not enough co-op programs in the rest of the colleges and universities in this country. If I could make one change in higher education, it would be to develop more of those programs. They are successful, sustainable, and productive. I have so much respect for them.

    yes. co-ops are a realistic way to integrate advanced learning and real-life work.

    • #14
  15. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    MarciN: The other kids can’t see their future, and certainly not how school fits into their future, so they drop out emotionally and mentally.

    I don’t disagree with this statement, but there are so many supports for students to help them overcome a variety of disadvantages.

    But you can only lead a horse to water, you can’t make them drink.

    How sad that we encourage students with a mediocre high school record to go on and borrow money to immerse themselves in the same environment that has proven ineffective for them.

    As others have said, there is value and respect in pursuing careers that don’t require additional education.

    And sometimes, doing work after high school, and waiting a year or two to go to community college or university is the best thing that kids could choose.

    • #15
  16. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    Randy Webster:I went to a big high school in Prince George’s County, MD (my dad was stationed at Andrews). About 1/3 of the students were in a vocational track, with the building and facilities to support them. I don’t recall anyone looking down on the vocational track students.

    it depends on where you are.

    Many of the kids in Vocational schools are as clear about their future as those kids on a college track.

    But often vocational school is a place where kids with fuzzy plans end up. They are not always successful in that environment.

    Our school district sends kids in various schedule permutations to Vo-Tech. Some all day, some morning, some afternoon, etc. A cursory review of the student problems on the bus transportation will help to see that many students are NOT ready with the self-control or vision to be successful.

    Unfortunately, the Vo-tech can kick kids out, then they come back to a full-on academic environment, and wreak havoc in the building.

    • #16
  17. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    danok1:

    MarciN: College is a requirement for nearly all knowledge-based careers these days. In fact, an applicant can’t get through a computer screener without one.

    and

    MarciN: To my knowledge, most of those jobs require a college degree these days.

    The sad fact is that you don’t need a college degree to do most of these jobs, but the employer requires you to have one. Do you really need a degree to be a file clerk, or work in an MIS department? Or to take a sales job? Seriously, your typical office job doesn’t require a degree. The degree is the modern equivalent of the HS diploma circa 1960: certification of basic literacy/employability.

    IMHO, the only fields where a four-year (or advanced) degree is a real necessity are engineering, the hard sciences, and medicine.

    Unfortunately, school funding habits encourage schools to keep kids on the roll/roster (not let them drop out). What I mean is: many students by age 15-16 have pretty much power in their lives, because they make choices, and no one can make them do anything.

    Students reject academic work. Reject Vo-Tech. Reject learning. But we keep them on the rolls, because they represent $$.

    If public schools had any cajones, they would call the bluff, take the hit on the dollars, and demand that students who reject a learning environment are removed. They cost more to service than the dollars they bring in. And they destroy the opportunity of the many, many kids who value what is offered.

    When kids grow up, they can get their GED. Might be 19, 24, or 38 years old. The choice to learn and participate in life and community is personal, and can not be mandated by K-12 schools, community college or university.

    Because of this kind of dynamic, a high school diploma is now devalued, and employers regard those successful in their CHOICE to be successful in university or community college as the standard. It used to be HS diploma was that standard.

    • #17
  18. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    danok1:

    MarciN: College is a requirement for nearly all knowledge-based careers these days. In fact, an applicant can’t get through a computer screener without one.

    and

    MarciN: To my knowledge, most of those jobs require a college degree these days.

    The sad fact is that you don’t need a college degree to do most of these jobs, but the employer requires you to have one. Do you really need a degree to be a file clerk, or work in an MIS department? Or to take a sales job? Seriously, your typical office job doesn’t require a degree. The degree is the modern equivalent of the HS diploma circa 1960: certification of basic literacy/employability.

    IMHO, the only fields where a four-year (or advanced) degree is a real necessity are engineering, the hard sciences, and medicine.

    As I said, I think the college degree is sought after by employers because it is a mark of self-discipline, not skills or knowledge. I do not think we can change that. It’s just reality.

    • #18
  19. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    MarciN: I do not think we can change that. It’s just reality.

    We can ask kids to accept consequences for their decisions at age 16–and return a high school diploma to something valued and earned, not given.

    • #19
  20. John Paul Inactive
    John Paul
    @JohnPaul

    If a BA becomes ubiquitous (and viewed as being less valuable) employers will require a graduate degree as a screening mechanism. It’s happening now in white collar settings and in parts of the service sector. The Clinton education funding plan serves to create yet another entitlement that is not predictive of the acquisition of skills, knowledge, or future job prospects.

    • #20
  21. Jules PA Inactive
    Jules PA
    @JulesPA

    John Paul:If a BA becomes ubiquitous (and viewed as being less valuable) employers will require a graduate degree as a screening mechanism. It’s happening now in white collar settings and in parts of the service sector. The Clinton education funding plan serves to create yet another entitlement that is not predictive of the acquisition of skills, knowledge, or future job prospects.

    yup. Clinton won’t fix it. Her plan will make it worse, because it will further devalue the entry level education offered in HS.

    • #21
  22. Indaba Member
    Indaba
    @

    A goverment needs to increase the value of their work force to grow their economy.

    University expanded then seems to be logical in this era of the knowledge worker.

    Here in Canada, the cost of university varies widely by degree. Both my sons are in STEM subjects which are the priciest. Since tey are both getting job offers, it is worh the price. As for Newton and poets and second languages, they did these at high school.

    I back the plumber profession too but the STEM subjects are worthwhile. Many are going to the USA for their jobs too.

    If they were doing four years at this cost and then knowledge of poetry but no job, I would not be happy. But for STEM subjects, it is not the traditional universiy subjects but it seems o be relevant to the job market.

    So just throwing money s Clinton says seems rash bu targetting he growth of knowledge for future jobs seems worthwhile subsidizing.

    • #22
  23. Man With the Axe Inactive
    Man With the Axe
    @ManWiththeAxe

    Way too many of the kids in college are, as we all know, learning how to be good progressives. So, not only aren’t they learning something valuable, they are learning something destructive.

    It is absurd that jobs that don’t require the supposed knowledge or skills taught in college still require a degree. Not only does that practice violate the disparate impact rule of Griggs v. Duke Power Co., (whatever you may think of that rule) it is a monumental waste of resources.

    The $350 billion that will be thrown down the rat hole on inessential educations for the next generation of microaggressed climate-change focused safe-space seeking politically correct occupiers could instead be spent on a large enough military to wipe out ISIS, push Putin back out of Crimea, while at the same time teaching those 18-21 year old sensitive souls what exactly is the price of freedom.

    • #23
  24. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I like the Ritz-Carlton’s way of doing things: hire for attitude, train for skill. :)

    • #24
  25. Wiley Inactive
    Wiley
    @Wiley

    Jules PA: Entry into Universities is too easy. Universities accept students who need remedial coursework because those students can get loans

    But easier entry is the plan. It’s part of the “leveling the field” plan. Rewarding poor performance is part of the plan. The poorer “disadvantaged” students are the very students the government are subsidizing.  And we all know that you get more of whatever you subsidize. Works just like the Welfare system, subsidize the poor and you get more of them. Subsidize poor college students and you get more of them. Remedial classes will only increase.

    • #25
  26. Wiley Inactive
    Wiley
    @Wiley

    Jules PA: How sad that we encourage students with a mediocre high school record to go on and borrow money to immerse themselves in the same environment that has proven ineffective for them.

    Amen.

    • #26
  27. Indaba Member
    Indaba
    @

    Just reading in Forbes that Silicon Valley likes university degrees with Arts majors. This is the Canadian CEO of Slack interviewed who says he likes liberal arts degrees as they are creative and solve problems:
    Throughout the major U.S. tech hubs, whether Silicon Valley or Seattle, Boston or Austin, Tex., software companies are discovering that liberal arts thinking makes them stronger. Engineers may still command the biggest salaries, but at disruptive juggernauts such as Facebook and Uber, the war for talent has moved to nontechnical jobs, particularly sales and marketing. The more that audacious coders dream of changing the world, the more they need to fill their companies with social alchemists who can connect with customers–and make progress seem pleasant.

    • #27
  28. danok1 Member
    danok1
    @danok1

    Indaba: A goverment needs to increase the value of their work force to grow their economy.

    I fear I have to take exception to this statement. It reeks of “industrial policy”. The “work force” is not the property of the government, nor is “increasing its value” the proper object of government. For me, Patrick Henry said it best:

    “You are not to inquire how your trade may be increased, nor how you are to become a great and powerful people, but how your liberties can be secured; for liberty ought to be the direct end of your Government.” – Virginia Ratifying Convention, 5 June 1788

    • #28
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