At the moment, there is a debate over whether or not college should be made free for everyone. And at first glance, the obvious answer is yes. College is outrageously expensive, and making it free would allow everyone access without forcing anyone into debt.
But there’s a presumption backing this “obvious” answer, and the presumption is that college is necessary. It would be perfectly reasonable in a context where the thing involved (i.e., food, clean water, etc.) is a basic human need, but college is not. I covered some of the reasons in my essay, I Am a Four-Year College Opt-Out—high monetary cost, high opportunity cost, lack of applicability of the coursework to the real world, etc.—but in essence, college is not the only path to success, and for many people, it’s not even a very good one.
But even if college isn’t necessary, what harm would it do for college to be free for those who want to attend? After all, debt is crippling the nation’s youth, and wouldn’t it be nice if that went away? Of course only a stingy old fart who doesn’t think young people “deserve” an education would say free college is bad, right? Why am I writing this essay?
To answer these questions, let me skip back in time and tell you a story. It is 1920. The uppermost level of compulsory education isn’t 12th grade, it is 8th. High school as we know it now does not exist; in its place sits something that looks more like college: an elite, expensive program which only accepts the top 5% of applicants. Because high schools only accept the very best, those who graduate are almost guaranteed high-paying jobs.
This began to change in 1954. Some guys saw all the high school graduates getting great jobs and had a bright idea. If we make high school free, they thought, then everyone will be able to get a high school education, and thus, a great job! The problem was that the only reason high school graduates had gotten great jobs was because of the rarity of their education. And over the next fifty years, as high school was made free and subsequently mandatory, a high school education became completely useless. The only thing gained was four more years of compulsory schooling before children, now more properly young adults, could begin working.
This has already happened before! This whole argument and discussion, should we take this elite program and make it free, of course we should because it’ll give everyone good jobs, it’s happened before! It will be just as ineffective this time as it was last time, because nothing has changed. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is still a logical fallacy, and people are still making it. In the exact same way as before. Those who fail to learn from history are, as they say, doomed to repeat it.
Now let me present a possible vision of the future. It is 2056. College has been made free and mandatory, and the little value it still had has been completely erased. The only thing gained has been four more years of compulsory schooling before young adults, now more properly adults, can begin working. The societal definition of “child” goes from “under 18” to “under 24”. The average human lifespan doesn’t change, it simply becomes normal that humans spend the first full quarter of their lives in the artificial school environment, which is just as pointless as ever: the students care as little about learning as the teachers care about teaching, nobody gets paid enough, and everyone is miserable. One day, a 24-year-old kid reads an article which says people are trying to make graduate school free, and she thinks, “Huh. That seems like a good idea. Then, everyone could have a good education for free.”
In writing this, I don’t want to cast my ballot on this issue as “the system is fine the way it is”, because the system is not fine. But the way to fix it is not to commit the same logical fallacy that we already made less than a century ago. The problem is complicated, and a complicated problem cannot be fixed with a three-word solution. “Make college free” is not the answer.
I hope this essay can open a discussion on the real answer. It will have to contain a solution to the college debt crisis. It will have to take into account the fact that our current public school system was designed to churn out good factory workers, despite the fact that we now need entrepreneurs instead. Preferably, it should contain a solution to the public school system’s current problem of not teaching important skills (how to pay taxes, what laws exist and how to change them, etc), but I know better than to get my hopes up. I’ll settle for just finding a way to teach skills that are legitimately important for purposes of starting a career, such as the importance of both cheerfulness and good writing. But even if this essay can do none of that, I hope that it at least made you consider this debate in a different light.