President Obama is expected to announce in his State of the Union address a new initiative aimed at providing over 9 million Americans with at least two years of free community college. Estimates of the cost range around $60 billion over 10 years. The federal government would pay 75% of the cost of the program and states the other 25%.
As noble an idea as this may be it doubles down on a flawed and elitist premise. Only going to college, any kind of college, ensures your success. Oh, and there is also that pesky adding to the debt thing but that blog is for another day. This elitist mindset would only be advanced further if the program was accepted.
Now, there is nothing wrong with going to college. Heck, in three months I will graduate with a Master’s. But there are many Americans who have and can succeed without a college degree. Take my grandfather. He did not attend college until his 30’s and he was able to succeed well before then. Scores of entrepenuers, young and old, mechanics, technicians, etc. did/are not go to college and are did/are succeeding in America today.
But this idea merely doubles down on the premise that college is the end all be all. I certainly know my college degree has not netted me the income that national and state statistics promise. Rather, finding full-time work with a degree has been a challenge.
Again, there is nothing wrong with going to college. I don’t necessarily see an issue with the government encouraging individuals to do so either, even with the promise of two years of “free” community college. What I do see an issue with is that the policy seems aimed at indirectly solving the wrong problem. Instead of government trying to incentivize companies to hire non-college educated individuals or heaven forbid train them the view a college degree is needed to “get ahead” is reinforced. This does not help create jobs or encourage companies to hire. Instead, it creates a perverse incentive for companies to hire more of “them” (college degree holders) and less of the “rest” (non college degree holders). This mindset was not created recently. It has occurred through a culmination of federal/state programs expanding college availability and the watering down of college standards to increase access.
Other elitist policy preferences also seem to be indicative of this choice among a wide share of stakeholders. Liberals love the idea because it promises to expand racial diversity in college. Businesses are warm to the idea because they have to spend less time training new workers or hiring low-skilled workers. Further, some conservatives and Republicans may embrace the idea because it promises them a short-term fix to a serious problem in states plagued with high unemployment and a low skilled workforce.
But it is not a fix. Community college is widely available at affordable prices to many. A host of federal and state programs and grants exist to ensure access. If access was an issue colleges would not be dealing with record enrollment and graduation roles. More Americans than ever before hold college degrees and they dominate government and non-entry level business positions.
Consider today that almost every government job anywhere requires a college degree. Many business require you to have a degree to get into entry level management or supervisory roles. Almost every lawmaker (if not all) have some sort of degree. Do these people really understand those without a degree? Those coming up with policy ideas such as this are thus disconnected with a very different world.
Now, I of course have my own policy ideas on how to confront these issues. Some of them have downsides. Deregulation of higher education at the federal level would likely impact Pell Grants and scholarships that offer opportunity to many. But others should be very popular. Public private partnerships promoting internships and apprenticeships and government internships teaching skills to non-college educated individuals are but two. Eliminating onerous licensing requirements and wage subsidies paid for through government and private sources could be done at the state level.
I understand how it is easy for for society as a whole as well as elites to view college as the answer to people’s wage/job problems. But some people simply are not book smart. Others just have different talents. People who drop out of community college or barely graduate High School are just as valuable to the world as those who graduate Cum Laude or like me attain a Master’s degree or PhD. As Megan McArdle puts it “The way we acknowledge that is to create a society that values them as workers and citizens, not to declare that we’ll be more than happy to help them . . . just as soon as they get cracking on that diploma.”