Bernie Sanders is promising it. Students throughout the country are demanding it. Free Tuition.
When you have kids like this one, ending up $226K in debt for a degree to get a job (speech pathology) that will only average about $71K a year, it’s not surprising that they (or their parents) will be pushing for free tuition.
But I think the majority are looking at this the wrong way.
Tuition costs are only a symptom. The problem is with college itself.
Fundamentally, college in the Western world is in an economic bubble that is very likely to burst sometime soon. An artificial situation has formed where there is a very high demand for college; we have told the last two generations now that ALL of them MUST go to college. Without college you can’t possibly get a good job, they were told. If you’re young, you were almost certainly told many, many times that your dreams wouldn’t come true if you didn’t get a college degree (I know I heard that, even 20 years ago, when I did my degrees). If you’re older, you probably told your own kids that line at some point.
This was the first part of the problem. Since colleges knew that they had a captive audience, with enormous demand, they started to inflate services, inflate salaries, and inflate tuition. Students couldn’t afford college anymore! So the student loan rules were created, because even the government thought Everyone Must Go To College. Now, students could get loans to help them pay for college, so the colleges started charging even more tuition, knowing that the students could get loans to pay for it, and would, because Without College Your Dreams Won’t Come True.
The Bubble grew bigger.
Student loans made things worse, not better.
Now, we’re in a situation where the bubble is showing signs of being close to bursting. There’s several problems that are all coming together to lead to a crash. That’s what usually happens with bubbles, as they stretch out more and more to resist reality, too much pressure builds up. In the case of the college system you have:
1) The costs of student loan debt reaching the point where in many cases they make the degree itself unjustifiable. When you’re getting hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans for a degree that will at best get you a job that will pay a few tens of thousands of dollars, it becomes increasingly less worth it.
2) Worse still, there are far too many people getting degrees to compete for very few jobs. When you have 84,000 people getting degrees in Communications every single year, you can be absolutely sure that most of those people will NOT be “making their dreams come true.” They’ll end up with a huge debt and no chance of getting a job that has anything to do with their field of study.
3) The glut of students and the idea that college is now necessary has led to a devaluing of degrees themselves. You know those 84,000 Communications majors? None of them are going to get the best jobs in communications at all. Most of those will all be going to the smaller number of people who took Masters degrees in Communications (and an even bigger student loan debt). The bachelor’s degree is now worthless.
And all of this is also warping the rest of the economy in general. The College Bubble means that now a college degree is required to work at minimum wage jobs. When there’s a ton of college graduates with no hope of ever getting the job they trained for, it means that suddenly they’re applying to work at retail jobs, and now people without college degrees stand less of a change of getting even these very menial jobs. The end result: you need a Bachelor’s degree to work at a shoe store. You need at least a Masters degree to work as a copy boy at a newspaper.
Meanwhile, having a whole generation starting out working life with a massive debt means that it’ll hold back their chances of buying houses, starting businesses and generally doing all the life-building work that fuels economic prosperity.
This divorce from reality has affected the college experience itself. Over the last few decades, as colleges have held more and more of a captive audience of students, they have become less and less grounded in pragmatism and more ideologically extreme. The environment of the average college campus is easily the most leftist, most repressive, and most hostile to Western values of any institution in the Western world. There are some colleges in America that are more leftist today than the average Soviet or Chinese Communist university at the peak of Marxism’s power. Colleges have become breeding grounds for anti-democratic values. And anti-capitalist values as well; and why not? After all, when you have a monopoly you don’t really need to value free markets.
And as they abandoned the Western canon, colleges became frivolous and meaningless, obsessed with pop culture and identity politics. You could argue that a university education should be about more important things than just making money, that being educated is a value in and of itself. But this is much harder to argue when you’re going to an institution that thinks it’s racist to teach Shakespeare or sexist to teach Chaucer, and instead tells you to take classes like “Examining The Hunger Games: Class Politics and Marketing” or “The Unbearable Whiteness of Barbie” (both real courses).
None of this would necessarily doom the Bubble, as long as colleges still kept that captive audience. If no one had a choice but to go to college, even if only to work as a shoe salesman, the system could just keep going. But there’s one more challenge to the college system that threatens to overturn everything: emerging technology.
It’s important to remember that university is ultimately a 12th Century system trying to educate people for a 21st Century world. It was useful for as long as high-end knowledge was hard to obtain, and when you had to go where the teachers could be found to train you. But today, we have the internet.
The internet is radically changing how people learn. There are already many fields where “what degree you have from where” is no longer as important (or sometimes not important at all) as what you can actually do. Degrees in computer sciences are less useful than having the actual skills that programming jobs demand. Having a degree in journalism is not as important anymore when someone can start writing a blog and end up getting hired to write for a website with a bigger readership than most newspapers.
Now of course, some jobs still require training you can’t get online. And right now, this training comes from universities. But there’s nothing that says it will always have to be that way. As for everything else, people are finally starting to ask themselves whether college is really what you need to get either a good education in general, or the training to do the kind of work you want to do. And here’s the test: if a quick Google search finds people who have done what you would like to do for a living without college, then the answer is college isn’t necessary.
What about the virtue of education for its own sake? Well, as I pointed out above, most colleges today are great at giving students an ideological indoctrination in totalitarian Leftist Identity-Politics, but really horrible at giving you a really meaningful education. Meanwhile, the internet has every classic of literature, philosophy, history and all the other humanities available for free. Want to learn from a teacher? Here: study at Yale absolutely free. Want more? Here, lots more, almost all of it free. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. And everything we have right now is just the beginning of a massive change.
The only thing that’s keeping the College Bubble going at this point is ignorance, tradition and a totally artificial idea of what a piece of parchment is worth.
But here’s the thing: if you make tuition free, that won’t solve any of the problems. All it will do is temporarily relieve the pressure on the Bubble. It will push the debt currently shouldered by students onto the whole population of taxpayers, and this will let colleges charge EVEN MORE money, because now the government is forcing everyone to pay them. It’ll mean even more people go to college, which means even less jobs will be available to graduates and degrees will have an even lower real-value.
The only thing “Free Tuition” does is declare that colleges are “too big to fail.” But just like the big banks or the auto industry, colleges (ironically) won’t learn a thing from their crisis, and keep doing even worse, knowing the government will bail them out. That dooms the Bubble to get even worse, and sooner or later, even with free tuition, the whole system will catastrophically burst. Declaring something “too big to fail” is actually just doubling-down on failure. It’s like if you have a friend with a gambling addiction and you promise to bail him out every time he goes broke; it doesn’t help him, it doesn’t help his kids, and it won’t help you. In the long run, you’ll just all end up broke.
The real answer isn’t free tuition, it’s to change the whole way we look at advanced education. To put more emphasis on trades (many of which are desperately needed, and can earn more money than many college jobs), on specific work-focused training programs, on online education, and on adapting to the new economy and new technology by putting more emphasis on what someone can actually do rather than what nominal qualifications they have. Obviously, some careers like medicine or the sciences will still require a more traditional framework of education, but on the whole we need to take away the power of this archaic, bloated, biased educational-monopoly system, and start thinking about learning in whole new ways.
This is my final column here at EveryJoe. If you like my work, please follow me on Twitter @KasimirUrbanski to see where I go next. Please contact me there if you are interested in hiring me to write on politics, culture, religion, games, history, or just about anything else. Thank you to all my loyal readers!
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