In his State of the Union address, President Obama said that he wants community college to be free. He should develop the idea further. Doing so would be a public service, exposing some of the paternalistic conceits of modern progressivism, chief among them that the solution to our economic and social problems is the further deployment of state power.
Some say that four-year colleges are too expensive. Students graduate into a stagnant job market with loads of debt — about $30,000 per capita in 2012. Free community college is a way to help poorer young adults get necessary skills for much less money — for no money, in fact, because it’ll be “free.”
The first thing this analysis ignores is the role that the government already plays in the rising cost of tuition. Since the early 1990s, the federal government has artificially reduced the cost of paying for college. The government lowered interest rates on student loans every few years until the 2010 Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, which effectively nationalized the market for student loans. Responding to cheap student loans, colleges have jacked up tuition costs faster than inflation for years. This makes sense: Cheaper loans mean more demand, which means higher prices. The problem is that students are effectively borrowing against future incomes, which, especially for recent college graduates, have barely kept pace with inflation. One good way to stop this race to the top would be for the federal government to cancel subsidized student loans, forcing consumers (students) and producers (colleges) to make intelligent decisions about how to spend money. The current situation leaves students (or, if they default, taxpayers at large) out in the cold.
But isn’t education, including higher education, a human right, or, at the very least, something that society has decided it should provide for everyone? Putting aside for the moment that the politicians who talk like this are usually the ones spending other people’s money on what “society wants,” there are intellectual, social and economic deficiencies to making community college free.
First, the intellectual. To say higher education is something everyone needs is to disparage those who don’t have it, want it or need it. Adults who don’t want a higher education will not be able to get certain jobs, and will still be able to get others. They, not President Obama or the Yale student body, know what’s best for them. They should not be coerced, even indirectly, through paternalistic “incentives” funded with their money. This brings us to the social problem of the government making all sorts of decisions about how we live our lives.
“We” do not exist. There is no “collective action.” We are not the people we’ve been waiting for, because there was never any we to do the waiting. The social problem is the people who believe they speak for the “we” imposing through the state a view of the good life on people that don’t want it. Some government institutions — the military, the police and the courts — can be justified because they defend basic rights to life, liberty and property. Others, such as a minimal amount of public education, can be justified on the grounds of neighborhood effects: People benefit even when they don’t buy into them, and therefore should be coerced into doing so. Free higher education for adults is different from that for children because of the different role the state should play in the lives of each. Children will become the stewards of society — in order for society to preserve itself, children need to be educated to that end. But adults are the society. The interests of society are their individual interests. As the best judges of their interests, it’s up to them how to spend their time and money, and that includes choosing to go to college.
The progressive view of government leaves little intellectual room for people to choose what they want in competitive markets. This raises the economic problem, which is that government monopolies on the provision of goods don’t typically run efficiently. Look at the Defense Department, Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, anti-poverty programs and the postal service. Nationalizing college would make it more of a financial mess than it already is.
If liberals care about providing opportunities for the poor, they should favor privatizing all colleges. That way, the people who run them will have the incentives of the private sector to run them well. We continue to slouch toward a stagnant inequality the longer we wait.
Cole Aronson is a freshman in Calhoun College. Contact him at email@example.com.