Saturday, January 20, 2007

Free College for All?

The Gazette reports that some people are advocating a government program to fund college tuition for all people. This effort is inspired by the privately funded Kalamazoo Promise program to give free tuition to all Kalamazoo Public Schools graduates.

The fact that college graduates could advocate such a program refutes its assumptions.

The best response to this proposal is to link to this article by Charles Murray in the Wall street Journal.

As Murray writes, not everyone is smart enough to go to college, at least not if a college degree means something. And plenty of jobs don't require a college degree.

The proponents of a "Michigan promise" are apparently basing their proposal on the fact that college graduates make more money than nongraduates. This is certainly true. However, as the proponents should have learned in college (or earlier) correlation is not causation. In this case, it is more likely that there is an underlying cause for both college graduation and high earnings. Namely, people who are more intelligent and motivated are more likely to achieve both.

Now, a college degree certainly helps increase earnings for those who pursue certain professions like doctor, lawyer, engineer, scientist. However, it is not likely that these results can be extended to everyone.

Another bad assumption is the implicit equation of going to college with getting a college education. It may be necessary to go to college to get a college education (though I can't help wondering if you could get an equivalent education in some subjects without going to college). But going to college does not mean that you are getting an education.

The proponents of this plan should have studied economics. We can discover its consequences by analyzing the incentives involved.

Most obviously, the plan would cost a fortune. The proponents talk about how it would cost "only" $350 per year for an average family. Oh, that's all, is it? Raising taxes would further damage Michigan's economy, leading businesses and citizens to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Even this assumes that tuition stays at current levels.

But tuition would skyrocket. Subsidizing something leads to increased demand, and increased demand leads to increased prices. Colleges would have every reason to raise tuition to take advantage of the government money.

To keep the less qualified students, colleges would have strong incentives to lower standards. There would have to be more remedial courses, and many courses would be dumbed down to the point that almost anyone could pass. Many would simply be filled with busywork. This would not only waste the time of less qualified students, but also damage the education of qualified and motivated students.

While there would be more students in college, that doesn't mean they would be getting educations. As it stands, plenty of students are more interested in partying than getting an education. With tuition guaranteed, this would increase dramatically.

Taxpayers, students of all sorts, and the economy would all be worse off under such a plan. The only people who would gain are a small group of college administrators and professors who would be guaranteed more money. They have a strong incentive to support this plan.

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