One advantage to writing a column or blog over a period of years is that the same populist, though foolish, political ideas resurface and can be addressed by simply pulling out a previous column. Receiving the honor this time is Obama’s promise of free community college tuition for everyone. Yes, it was John Edwards who tried to buy popularity with that promise in his try for the presidency before his chances flew south over philandering. This column can be found in my published collection of columns on education, “Education: A Contrarian View,” found in the Kindle Store for 99 cents.
Presidential candidate Jonathan Edwards says if he is elected, he will push for legislation to create a program he calls "College for Everyone." Government funded education for all of us. Sounds good! Who could possibly be against it? College professors, for one, might consider opposing it. The unintended consequences might be hazardous to the health of higher education.
(I read in today's paper that some professors fear the ideas will take significant funds away from four year institutions, though that is not my concern.)
The same unintended consequences will follow a program of government funded college for everyone. There are really only two reasons to go to college: because your chosen career path requires it, or because you really enjoy learning. But there are two other groups of students found on college campuses: those who are there because their families expect them to be there and those who see it as a way of staying off the job market for another four years. As the affluence of our culture has grown and as government programs for funding higher education have increased, so has the growth on campus of these latter two groups. Government funded college for everyone will only further bloat colleges with students from these two groups.
While students in these groups are not forced to be there, their interest in learning is minimal. Professors complain about students showing up on campus in need of remedial instruction, incapable of doing college work, or unwilling to strive for academic excellence. When given assignments worthy of college level work, these students complain or simply enroll in courses taught by less demanding professors. In times past, a professor could tell those not interested in learning to leave. However, colleges are in the business of selling credits and administrators need every dollar they can get to pay for their country club campuses, so professors are encourage to accommodate these low performers. So, the education becomes diluted. It doesn't really matter whether those not really interested in learning are there by force or by choice; their presence will have the same corrosive effect.
Not only should the government not pay for a college education for everyone, neither should parents automatically shell out the funds for their children to go to college. Many parents who failed to get a college degree and have had to work hard to move up the ladder of success see college as a way for their children to avoid the same struggles. One time I got in a squabble with my editor and quit before I had a new job lined up. Out of necessity, I took a job in the roaster department of a zinc plant. I was a college graduate among a group of factory workers. I soon realized the workers were uneasy with my being there. They had all pinned their hopes for their children not having to work there on their getting that coveted college degree; my presence took away from that hope. I might add, though, that I got paid more doing that unskilled labor than I did using my college degree.
However, unless a student falls in one of the first two categories mentioned above, a college education might be a setback. Let's take two kids graduating from high school at the same time. Tom loves automobiles and gets a job at a big dealership as a parts runner right after graduation. He's a hard worker, dependable, and because he is curious, he is always learning and takes advantage of all the training classes the company has to offer.
Henry, however, goes to college because his family expects it, but he really doesn't want to be there. He has no sense of direction so he just barely scrapes by grade wise, taking easy classes and getting a liberal arts degree. He manages to graduate, but can’t find a good job, so he takes a job as a lot boy at the same agency that hired Tom four years earlier. Tom has now been through several promotions, has a decent income for a 22 year old and is buying a house of his own. He has earned a reasonable income over the last four years and his future looks bright.
Henry, on the other hand, has an entry level job, is receiving minimum pay, and is making payments on a $50,000 student loan for a degree he didn't really want and which will do him little good in his aimless pursuit of a career.
The college benefited financially because it got to sell him all his credits and collect all those athletic fees. Unfortunately, the professors had too many students like Henry. They were called on the carpet for flunking too many as the college needed to sell all the credits they could, so they begrudgingly modified their syllabi to make it a little easier on students like Henry.
College for everybody and paid for by the government sounds good at first, but my sense is that the unintended consequences will ruin our schools of higher learning. In fact I would guess it is already happening to some degree just from the government funding now available. College is not a smart choice for everyone.