A Common Sense Argument Against Free College Education…and it is Wrong.

Bernie Sanders Meme About Free College TuitionA friend posted her opinions opposing Senator Bernie Sander’s call for free.  There are some arguments, mostly regarding costs, that can be debated reasonably, but even those are largely political questions.  The truth is, if we want free college education for all Americans, achieving that goal is a matter of choice.

Here’s what my friend posted:

“I said this earlier. It’s simple. If everyone gets a college education because it’s free it’s no longer special. You will have to find something else that sets you apart. And just like our current public schools, if the government wants everyone to have one – will everyone truly be educated? I think not! Don’t get me wrong- the cost for college is completely out of line – believe me I know.”

I am sharing this because her view is not unique.  It is a “common sense” argument that is heard frequently.  However it is misses the mark on almost every point.

Implied here is a scarcity argument.  It suggests that a college education is special because not everyone has one.  In a practical way, that seems to be true.  However, let’s presume that my friend is thinking about degrees and jobs since that’s probably the sphere where most people see degrees as being most relevant.   There are certain jobs that require a bachelors degree and many that require more.  But it really isn’t the scarcity of the degree that makes it valuable — or at least it shouldn’t be only that — but what the degree means.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The meme here suggests that Bernie Sanders does not understand how all of this works.  The correct reasoning, it seems, is to argue that if we have more people with degrees then we’ll have even more people with degrees without jobs.  However if we have fewer people with degrees, the fewer people with degrees will be out of work.  Right?  You don’t have to think about this very hard to understand this makes no sense.  It is like telling a poor person he has no money problems because he has no money.

It isn’t the degree itself that entitles one to a job.  An individual still needs to earn a job through his or her skill, experience, and character, for example.  The job applicant needs to apply what is gained from earning a bachelors degree to a situation.  If everyone has a bachelors degree then everyone is better qualified overall.

Look at it another way.  In a very scarce job market, employers can require a bachelors degree whether one really would make a difference in performing a job or not.  In this case the relevant scarcity that matters is not the degree, but the number of available jobs.

Let’s be a little absurd here, too.  Let’s suppose everyone has an art history degree.  Everyone.  Would that fact undermine a person’s enjoyment of art?  Hard to see how that would be so.

Which brings me to the comment about public schools and education, which I think is probably an incomplete thought.  I guess I would answer that question with a yes.  If everyone had a public education, then yes…I think everyone would be more educated.  Education is not inherently a limited resource.   My having an education does not prevent you having an education.   Indeed, it is only scarce because it is not always available.  This fact undermines my friend’s argument.  We can choose to educate, but instead allow barriers such as costs, to preclude educating.

GI Bill Postage Stamp

Education mattered then, it still matters today.

And, for the record, the government — and I think most people — want the public to get an education, public or otherwise.  This brings me to my final point.  Why wouldn’t we want everyone to have a public secondary and post-secondary education?  We lament the loss of jobs to the global economy.  The very ability to compete depends on advantages like education.  Educated people are better prepared to work and…I dare say…make simple political choices and arguments.

Instead so-called “common sense” steers opinions which trump reasoned debate and facts.  A country that can spend trillions on wars, corporate subsidies, and unbalanced tax policy certainly can shift priorities to fund more substantial and valuable investments such as public education.  But we don’t.

Interestingly, this post started with a link from a guy who calls himself the Bastiat Institute.  Frederic Bastiat is a 19th century French economist who is as relevant today as a buggy whip and a saint of the Austrian School.  Bastiat is loosely associated with the concept of Opportunity Costs in economics, an argument for which there are always no less than two sides.  Anyway, while I am sure the rational individualism of the Austrian School would disapprove, one could argue that NOT investing in education while dumping that investment elsewhere (wars, for example?) is a poor economic choice.  Bastiat disapproved of creative destruction — judging favorably that things break because replacing those things creates economic activity — and so you might think his followers, distant as they might be, would disapprove of wars, which are essentially deliberate economic destruction.  But I am wandering too far afield and that is a topic for another day…

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