The Free-College Fairytale

I’d be among the first to admit that the U.S. higher education system is flaw-ridden and too expensive. The cost of higher education is, in a practical sense, financially impossible for more than eighty percent of the population, at least without either financial aid or going heavily into debt, but making it “free” to all U.S. high school graduates won’t improve the situation. In fact, it’s likely to make it worse.

No one wants to look realistically at the situation. Today, every year, roughly twice as many students graduate from college as there are jobs requiring a college education. In addition, the real wages of the bottom 60% of those graduates are declining and have been for a decade. Third, twenty-five percent of all Americans between the ages of 17 and 24 cannot pass the basic reading literacy test required by the U.S. armed forces, and unhappily that includes a percentage of college students.

At the same time, there are literally millions of jobs going unfilled in the United States because job-seekers lack the skills to perform those jobs. Part of this is simply because, more and more, businesses don’t want to train new employees because the training time is unprofitable and lower level skilled employees tend to change jobs quickly, and colleges don’t want to get into what they consider “vocational” training… and they’re not staffed or equipped to do so.

All too many college bachelor degrees have become test-passing “credentials” and little more. The ranks of public university faculties are increasingly filled with adjunct teachers, the vast majority of whom are underpaid and overworked, often working part-time at two or more colleges or universities to cobble together enough income to barely make ends meet. Yet universities, especially state universities, are hiring fewer and fewer full-time faculty, and even those faculty members are burdened with all sorts of non-teaching requirements.

The result of these and other factors is that the majority of graduates of public universities, except for a few handfuls of elite public universities, are at a distinct disadvantage in the quality of the education they receive. Oh, there are still outstanding professors in every state university, but they’re far and few between, and all too many of them are leaving teaching, either through retirement or dissatisfaction. That means that the graduates of elite private universities and the few handfuls of elite first tier public universities have a tremendous advantage in getting jobs or into the best graduate schools.

Pumping billions of dollars into “free tuition” isn’t going to solve any of those problems, and it also ignores the fact that living expenses for college students are anything but insignificant.

In short, the well-educated and well-off are going to continue to prosper, while the poorer students… and the taxpayers… suffer.

3 thoughts on “The Free-College Fairytale”

  1. Wine Guy says:

    “Free tuition” just means that the schools are going increase the tuition costs (whether needful or not) over what they already are because then students won’t protest rates going up. Colleges will also increase all the various fees that can total up to 10-15% of tuition – and that’s before books, living expenses, and room/board are considered. I parcel out living expenses because in today’s commuter economy, transportation expenses are not insignificant and many of the off-campus housing locales are splitting out electricity, cable, internet, sewer, and water and making them the renter’s responsibility… It is harder to get loans for non-tuition/non-book costs… and then we’ll be right back where we were.

    OTOH, there are many, many 2 year schools – private institutions, junior colleges and vocational schools – that teach things that the economy needs. Looking at the JC that is 10 miles from my house, it offers 8 different vocational tracks. 1 track, as an example, is medical: EMT, Paramedic, Respiratory Therapy, Medical Coding, LVN, RN, and Certified Nursing Assistant/Home Health Aide.

    There are 7 other tracks and there are real skills to be learn that result in solid jobs.

    Not everyone needs a 4 year school.

  2. Peter J Michaels says:

    I can’t help thinking that seemingly good public policy has unintended consequences. Let’s start with the premise that if a qualified prospective student applies and is granted acceptance to a college or university, cost should not prevent attendance. Federal Student loans are made available and all is well with the world. The rise in the cost of college tuition has risen at roughly twice the rate of inflation (CPI) over the past 20 years. Is it really that surprising that college cost rise when easy credit to attend is available? Admission officials tend to highlight the terrific campus with first class athletic facilities and hotel like dormitories while downplaying the cost. ‘Don’t worry, we can get you financing. No problem”. Are we really surprised that colleges and universities have taken advantage of the available credit and doing so while the students accept the debt? Undergrads can borrow up to $12,500 annually while grad students can borrow up to $20,000 annually. Is it reasonable to expect a move to Free Collage for All will make the situation better?

  3. Tom says:

    It appears that ‘keeping up with the neighbors’ can be more important than money.

    If heroes in novels are butchers,, bakers and candlestick-makers then perhaps there will be a greater interest and pride in such work.

    Of-course if one can instill pride in the quality of what one does – all this would be mute.

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