This upcoming election sees America making a choice between free college for all and the twilight of civilization, and although that’s not exactly a difficult choice, I have to say that I’m not in favor of either. I’ll take our opposition to the apocalypse as a given, and instead talk about free college.
There seems to be a lot of arguments on both sides about whether this free-college plan would be affordable, and I’m sure these are great arguments, but they don’t matter at all. I’m here to tell you that, like armageddon, free college is a bad idea regardless of the budget.
The problem is that we have naively equated education with college. I’m not saying that you can’t get an education in college — depending on your field, it may be the only place you can, and certainly budding physicists should expect to learn a lot in college. In general, though, education is not what college is for, any more than teaching people to parade march is what the army is for (great place to learn it, though). College is for signaling your social class.
This idea, that college is for signaling, is not new, and it has been well-covered by others, and I’m hardly going to add anything new to the mix. Bryan Caplan argues so regularly (and so persuasively) on the topic that you can probably stumble across a good link by googling his name, but irregardful, here are a couple.
(I should state that Caplan and I probably do not agree on every point I am about to make, but he still serves as an excellent introduction.)
A college diploma does not tell future employers that you have learned anything valuable to the job (it might demonstrate that you know how to read, or do basic math, but a high school diploma, or in a better world a sixth-grade “diploma,” would serve just as well for that). Not only have I rarely had the chance to quote Byron at work, I would probably get in trouble if I quoted Byron excessively. Thanks for nothing, English department!
What a diploma does tell employers is that you’re a member of a social class that goes to college. We used to be able to isolate social classes by an elaborate web of etiquette and letters of introduction, but, with that broken down, America needed a way to make sure it didn’t hire people of the wrong class by accident. So it made college really expensive, such that only certain classes could afford to go. It made it so expensive that a new elaborate web of loans and subsidies popped up to allow the middle class to afford the requisite diploma (so it could get white collar jobs). Some of these subsidies are merit based, allowing the brightest of the lower classes to alger their way up into a higher echelon.
Some degree of native intelligence and perseverance (and perhaps ability to follow rules) is also tested by college, which is why we don’t just look at everyone’s ancestors’ tax forms to determine who gets what job. College signals several things at once, but the price tag is obviously in excess of its virtues as an intelligence or even “academic standing” test. Look how cheap the SATs are in comparison!
Make no mistake: college is expensive because we (or possibly they) want it to be expensive.
Community college is cheaper, of course, and therefore does not signal class as well, and therefore is less desirable on the job market.
Now, it’s possible that you may not get as good an education at a community college as you would at a four-year university, but I think that’s less firmly established: Depending on where you go, your community college literature classes may well have the same syllabus as Yale’s, and you can read the same books on criticism from the library (Yale’s may have more books, but how many essays on Tom Jones are you reasonably going to read?), and your professors are still people who went to grad school and know their subject well. But we already know that your boss doesn’t care about your knowledge of Fielding;* your boss cares about your ability to signal that you are a step above high school graduates and a step below…look, I don’t work in HR, I don’t know the exact ladder of state schools and “less competitive” schools and Trump University. But they know. Oh, they know.
I don’t mean to sound down on education. I love education! I think we should all be educating ourselves throughout our lives. But it’s clear that most people don’t actually care about education at all. Most college graduates aren’t spending their leisure hours struggling through academic texts; many colleges offer free auditing for townies, but very few townies take advantage of the offer. Education is like Jon Stewart’s plan to draft “every young person” — it’s something we rhapsodize about while it’s happening to other people. (I also don’t mean to be down on HR; they have their job to do, and it’s not like I’m not a fellow cog in the same machine.)
No one’s proposing that Harvard will be free — I mean, I’m assuming Clinton isn’t, supposedly she’s being uncharacteristically vague about the free-college program she inherited. If we made Harvard free, then HR departments would need to figure out a new way to determine people’s social class (or demographic; I know I usually say “demographic”), such as seeing who has a sweater tied around his shoulders, or who has white lights on her Christmas tree.
Similarly, making community college free (unambiguously part of Clinton’s actual proposal) will ruin the opportunity of current community college grads to signal. Essentially, it will make a community college degree as worthless as a high school diploma. Even poor people can get a high school diploma!
I assume there will be a “trickle up” cascade as people who could only afford community college, in a desperate effort to distance themselves from lower classes, endure extra privation, or greater debt, in order to bump themselves up to a next-tier university … whose students then need to bump themselves up in turn, in order to keep signaling what they had previously been signaling: that they are of a higher social class than these ex-community college students. And so on, like fleas, all the way up. In order to preserve their elite status, the Ivy Leagues may need to increase their price, but the end result will almost certainly be everyone paying more for college except for the poorest, who can now go to community college and take a couple years of their lives learning things they probably don’t care about in order to find out that their degree is, in the end, worthless.
Think of it like a decree that everyone in the world should get a million dollars. This would leave everyone with a lot of money but no richer.
On the other hand, community college may signal better than high school because there may be value in demonstrating that you are of a social class that can afford spending two or four more years in a part-time labor market than high school grads, so there might be some benefit there.
But overall this is a problem, that for a lot of students making community college free would make their lives worse. There are probably ways around this problem — we could focus on subsidizing trade schools or coding camps that teach actual job skills, for example, or we could decide as a nation that we actually think a liberal arts education is so important for its own sake that it’s worth the cost (ha ha! that won’t happen). I’m not saying I know the actual solution, but I do know that if we don’t even admit the problem, if we don’t choose to address class signaling as a function of college, we’re left with promising everyone a million devalued dollars.
(It goes without saying that being pro free college is a great way to signal that you are compassionate, just as being against it is a great way to signal that you’re bootstrappy. And as long as we’re just having fun signaling our demographics to strangers online, the continuing implosion of the American education system is a small price to pay.)
It’s funny, the way unintended consequences are always funny. And if I laugh at any human thing, ’tis that I might not weep.
*Unless your boss is George Steinbrenner. Ha ha ha ha ha!