"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, February 4, 2016

There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch–And Calls For A Tuition-Free Education Is Just Whistlin’ Dixie

One of the ideas that periodically circulates in progressive circles is the idea of free education for all.  Who could possibly object? An educated populace will make intelligent electoral decisions, perform efficiently and well in the marketplace, manage family and personal affairs with discipline and good sense, and base their lives on fact, reason, and logic.  America will become more competitive abroad.  Families will enter into social, marriage, and financial contracts with increased prudence.  Children will take advantage of the revolutionary new world of science and technology.  Literature, art, music, dance, history, and philosophy will become mainstream, and the so-called dumbing down of America will be a thing of the past.

Bernie Sanders, Democratic candidate for President (2016) has said that a free college education for all will be a hallmark of his administration.  He, like most progressives, insist that without ideals, reality cannot follow.  Only with our eyes on the prize can political will, financing, and human resources be mobilized. 


Progressives believe deeply in human progress.   Although the 20th century was as bloody, brutal, and uncompromisingly aggressive as any in the past two millennia, there is still hope.  Just because the world has not yet figured out a way to live in peace, that does not mean that violence must be perpetual.  These same progressives look past America’s divisiveness, increasing separatism and incivility and see a future of harmonious diversity, respect, tolerance, and good will.  We are only going through a bad patch; but with our optimism, collective intelligence, and basic communal principles, we will become a better people. 

Any observed differences in intellect, enterprise, or will have nothing to do with a lack of innate ability.  Deficiencies in performance are only a result of social indifference, discrimination, and capitalism; and strong, purposeful government interventions in the marketplace can set things right.
Conservatives believe just the opposite.  Human nature – self-serving, violent, territorial, aggressive, and willful – has never changed in the 100,000 years of humanity and never will.  Idealism is for those who have never read history.  The goal is not to create a better world, but at best to maintain a competitive balance.

The problem with free, universal education is not the money per se.  A country as rich as ours could certainly find the resources to fund a four-year college education for every 18-year old.  Although such a shift in funding priorities would necessarily mean new taxes, a reduction in entitlements, defense spending, or social welfare; in principle the dollars are there.

The unwillingness of conservatives to set universal education as a priority has less to do with money than it does with philosophical perspective.  Even if every 18-year old had access to a free college education, few would be able to take advantage of it.  The human race is not made up of intellectual equals.  The bell curve is as descriptive of intelligence as it is anything else.  Those who are not able enough to make it through a course of higher education will either drop out or muddle through and graduate little better off than when they entered.

The average dropout rates for  public universities – i.e. those that offer subsidized rates for in-state students – is approximately 40 percent.  The worst performing 25 universities have dropout rates as high as 75 percent (www.cbsnews.com).  Those students who do not graduate leave with an unrealistic burden of debt.  The taxpayer foots the bill for incomplete education; and the universities, thanks to generous state and federal support, continue to fill their coffers.  They have no incentive to raise the intellectual bar, to divert resources away from athletics to remedial education, or to take only well-qualified candidates.

In other words, thanks to public largesse, education is very affordable.  Not ‘free’ by any means, but a model that differs little from the universal education proposals of Sanders.  The model does not work.

Free community college has been touted as a more appropriate public investment.  Most students who attend these institutions are from low-income families, and their course work and practicum can be useful preparation for entry into the workforce. 

The very best community colleges have dropout rates similar to four-year college averages; but the vast majority lose their students well before graduation.  If these colleges were made free, many young people at loose ends, unsure of their future, and receiving little guidance from parents and family, would enroll for lack of anything better to do.  There is little doubt that they would leave within months of enrollment.  Once again, well-meaning taxpayers would get stiffed.

The system of higher education in America is broken, and instituting tuition-free enrollment would only exacerbate existing problems.  Colleges would have even more taxpayer money in their coffers with little responsibility for using it efficiently.  Students might not graduate with debt, but would still leave school ill-equipped to compete successfully in the marketplace or to become responsible members of the electorate.

Some private well-endowed universities like Harvard have said that any qualified student who meets its rigorous admission requirements can enroll.  The tuition for these penurious students is ‘free’, and it is the alumni who foot the bill.  Alumni associations, however, are insistent that if their money is to be used in this way, then it cannot be wasted.  Only the most gifted and talent students should be admitted to Harvard with no exceptions.

Public universities could do the same thing, but would hesitate because of how they interpret their charter originally drafted to ensure that any student meeting minimum educational requirements would have access.  In fact, when these universities were opened in the mid-19th century, applicants were from the middle and upper-middle classes – i.e. students who entered college with high performance in high school and the close support of families.   Now that states have become more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and academic ability; the charter has become a problem.
Yet, because the  corrupt system of public subsidy and taxpayer investment, these universities can disingenuously claim adherence to the charter (We will take anyone) at the same time as educational performance levels keep slipping.

If public universities changed their tune and admitted only the most qualified (referring the less qualified to lower tiers of the public educational system); and if the curriculum requirements were changed to assure that all students graduated with job training and a premier civic education, then a ‘free’ tuition might be considered.  In this scenario, the students and schools give and offer their best, and the taxpayer sees practical rewards from his investment.

This of course will never happen.  Such merit-based admissions policies would be immediately challenged as racist, elitist, and non-democratic; and street protests would be guaranteed.
It is obvious that a ‘free’ education is not possible now, for the foreseeable future, and for the long term.

The ‘No Free Lunch’ chimera is not restricted to education.  In all sectors of public and private society someone has to pay; and those who do have the right to demand solid returns on their investment. 

‘You Get What You Pay For’ is a corollary of the above.  It is hard to produce and maintain high quality goods and services when the price is too low.   Consumers are wary of products which are priced too low and ‘free’ offers.

Finally perceived value is a function of investment.  Affirmative action has been such a failure because it has been often seen as a free ride for unqualified students who have taken the places of the more able.   Black students who have paid full freight – i.e. gotten in on their merits – value their education more than those who have not.   Poor students who have worked their way through school tend to put in more time, energy, and personal investment in their education than legacy students who are allowed to coast.

Valuation is an economic term, not a financial one; and ‘free’ will always be suspect.

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