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Wednesday, May 16, 2018
Politics ... Public Policy ... Society ...

I’ve read a couple of interesting things lately about college education and the question of whether college should be available to everyone via government tuition subsidies at public colleges. Bernie Sanders introduced federal legislation not long ago to make all public colleges free. In 2014, President Obama proposed making 2-year community college free. The idea behind such government guarantees is that college is necessary today to obtain a good secure job with decent earnings, and that the more people who have college, the better off our society will be, in terms of economic growth, fairness and equality, and a variety of quality-of-life measures. A more educated workforce would theoretically stimulate the economy and allow employers to pay the higher salaries that highly productive college-trained workers demand. And with a higher percentage of our working population making college-level salaries, the expanding income and wealth distribution gap in our country should start to turn around, one would hope. The on-going racial gap in earnings and wealth should also improve as more minority students gain practical financial access to college.

So we get richer and have a more just society as a result of some up-front government tuition subsidy (which gets made up over time, hopefully, by increased tax revenues from higher overall worker earnings and business profits). Also, we should live better and more fulfilling lives. According to certain studies, college grads have longer life expectancy, greater life satisfaction, and better general health e.g. lower incidence of obesity. They are also less likely to commit crime, drink heavily, or smoke. They are also more likely to vote, volunteer, have higher levels of tolerance and educate their children better than non-graduates. College‐educated parents engage in more educational activities with their children, who are better prepared for school than other children.

College helps students to more fully participate in cultural and societal events and activities throughout their lives. Not surprisingly then, the rates of suicide for educated individuals is far lower than their uneducated counterparts. And, so the education idealists tell us, a more educated public is a more united public, experiencing higher levels of interpersonal trust —

Education leads to feelings of “togetherness” and compatibility within a society. Anne Bert Dijkstra, a professor at the Arizona State University, writes that in order for a society to grow, it must share common goals and values while simultaneously promoting variance and uniqueness. He explains that “in a peaceful, strong and vibrant society, differences can only exist if there is sufficient common ground.” When inhabitants of a country come together to participate in shared democratic practices, such as voting or partaking in national polls and surveys, they experience feelings of solidarity and nationalism as a collective unit working to move their country forward. Education helps to promote an awareness of these practices and how we should perform or observe them. The more educated a country’s citizens are, the more the country will advance and progress.

Wow, sounds like a shortcut to utopia! So why does reality today look so different? If you subscribe to modern leftist thinking, you might say that the problem is those darn rich GOP people, who don’t want to deal with herds of educated people (who tend to favor Democratic leftist politicians such as Sanders, Warren and Ellerson). The rich need to exploit the masses in order to stay rich and get even richer, and it’s not so easy to exploit smart people. There is a political roadblock built out of big money, but demographics and time are on the Democrats side, so don’t lose faith.

And yet, the college education scene today is not all that encouraging. College enrollment has been going down recently, especially in community colleges. The biggest reason appears to be money, of course — tuitions reaching unaffordable levels for more and more families. Some college students today worry not only about mid-term exams, but also as to where their next meal is coming from.

Furthermore, public attitudes about college education are growing less favorable. A recent survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC showed Americans to be losing faith that four-year college degrees are worth the price of tuition. According to a current web survey on, the response to the question “Is college really as important as our society has made it out to be?” is 37% yes, 63% no.

What is going on here? The Atlantic Magazine recently published a thoughtful analysis on why college may not be as good for nations and societies as they are cracked up to be (while still being worth it to many individual students). This article (The World Might Be Better Off Without College for Everyone) is by Bryan Caplan, an economist. He admits that most college graduates do have better earnings potential, but he remains cynical as to whether college training is anything more than a credential that this young person can get thru a complicated situation. Caplan discounts the notion that college actually provides relevant job skills to most graduates. The positive effects of a college degree on the graduate’s earning potential come down to credential inflation, according to Caplan: As the average level of education rises, more and more education is needed to convince employers that you’re worthy of any specific job. At the government agency where I work, we hire several college graduates each year to work in our records room, doing things that most any good high school graduate can do.

But surely college graduates help the economy, right? Not all that much, per Caplan:

When we look at countries around the world, a year of education appears to raise an individual’s income by 8 to 11 percent. By contrast, increasing education across a country’s population by an average of one year per person raises the national income by only 1 to 3 percent. In other words, education enriches individuals much more than it enriches nations.

And as to all of the other general benefits to society and to the happiness of the population, Caplan says:

I’m cynical about students. The vast majority are philistines . . . Indeed, today’s college students are less willing than those of previous generations to do the bare minimum of showing up for class and temporarily learning whatever’s on the test. Fifty years ago, college was a full-time job. The typical student spent 40 hours a week in class or studying. Effort has since collapsed across the board. “Full time” college students now average 27 hours of academic work a week—including just 14 hours spent studying. What are students doing with their extra free time? Having fun.

So, looks like the notion that universal college education is the cure-all for an unhappy and unjust society is going the way of so many other plans for the coming of the millennium. Oh well . . . belated happy 100th birthday to Karl Marx! (May 5). Marx is still pretty popular . . . in college classrooms.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 4:27 pm      

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