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Free 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.Published in