Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"College should be free"

Apparently this is something some of the OWS protestors are asking for.

I have a couple of problems with the concept; one is a practical problem, the other is a more philosophical problem.

I don't deny that college has become expensive. And for a lot of jobs where you once could be hired with a high-school diploma, you now need a B.A., or even in some cases, an M.A. And that's a problem.

I've already commented before on why I think college has gotten so expensive; I think it's mainly a combo platter of growing administrations (in some cases, because of added accounting or assessment type duties, or added student services; in other cases, there does seem to be mindset that "more administrators is better"), decreased state funding for public schools (not necessarily a bad thing, perhaps, in these days of strapped state budgets, but you do have to ask students and parents to shoulder more of the costs), and a desire for the newest, fanciest, and latest - I've seen new dorms where the dorm rooms/suites were far nicer than any apartment I ever lived in.

And yeah, we do need to ensure that college is at least somewhat affordable for people who want to go - a big part of the American dream is that people can have upward mobility if they work for it. The kid who grew up in a working-class family can become a surgeon if he or she works hard, earns good grades (and has an aptitude for science - and the dexterity required of a surgeon). And it makes me sad to think of people being closed out of that.

(I will say, my small university? We STRIVE to be affordable. And I consider it important to give my students the best education I can - I'm not giving them the "$5 education" whereas if I were at Harvard or somewhere I'd give them the "$20 version," I try hard to teach the students what they need to know regardless of whether they're trying for med school, want to go to grad school, or are taking college classes with no ambition greater than working at the local casino)

But I have two (maybe really three) problems with the idea of college education being "free" - which would really mean the taxpayers pay for it.

First of all: it costs money to keep a school open. You have to pay the electrical providers, the Internet providers. You have to buy books for the library. And you have to pay your faculty. (I mentioned before: I'm close to the top of the "food chain" of faculty, and I make $60K a year. Which I think is a good income, but I do not think it lavish or excessive.)

If the state paid for EVERYTHING, corners would have to be cut. Already, because of cuts in state funding, our library cannot afford everything it could ideally have. And we've got some serious "deferred maintenance" issues on campus. I can imagine in a fully state-run university, they'd have to cut faculty salaries...and then, if the salaries got low enough, you would not be able to get or keep quality people, at least in most fields. (If it came down to me, for example, being told, "You will make $25K a year, or find another job," I'd probably wind up (sadly) leaving academia. I suspect my skills and native intelligence could land me a better paying job in some other field.)

So that's the practical issue. (There's also the political issue that I don't think the state should pay 100% of a thing like that.)

But there's also a philosophical issue. My father remarked that he read the Communist Manifesto and other similar books when in college - and that "communism is beautiful on paper but ugly when people get involved." By that, he meant, in a perfect world, socialism or communism would work. (And in some limited situations - like some religious orders - a sort of communal property-held-in-common lifestyle DOES more ore less work.). But in the larger world, it doesn't. Because people tend to be selfish. And some people believe that "some pigs should be more equal than others."

But also, as he pointed out: property that no one owns, no one tends to keep up. Because no one has an investment in it. (There's also an essay out there called The Tragedy of the Commons. It's not quite the same idea, but it's similar).

If you have insufficient investment in something, you don't care about it.

And so, I'm afraid that if students were going to college for "100% free," there would be a critical mass of students who would not value their educations...who would slack off, and party, and not do anything. (Because if college was free, there might also be full employment for adults, courtesy of the government. And if there's no competition for anything - there's really little incentive to be excellent.)

Even now, I can see some students who are on loan money who don't try as hard as the people who are working their way through (or who earned good scholarships for which they must keep a certain GPA). (I've also heard students claim they're just going to default on their loans, because "Who will come after me?" Oh, my dear children, oh....)

If we make college free, people won't value it. (But I agree that neither should it be so expensive that only the very wealthy or connected can afford it).

And as I've said before: we need to promote non-college paths into the workforce for people who don't WANT to become doctors or engineers or nurses or researchers or professors or lawyers. We need to encourage the skilled trades - I know that there are some employers who cannot find qualified people for skilled-trade type jobs, currently.

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