Part v: What about Free Education for All?
This is going to be a short post. Both Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have proposed making higher education free for anyone who wants a college degree. Free higher education will solve the problem of student loan debt, but it is a short-sighted solution.
A long time ago, Robert Heinlein wrote a story about California addressing the income inequality between those with a college education and those without by granting all citizens a Bachelor’s degree on their 18th birthday.
Problem solved! No more income inequality due to educational differences.
A post-secondary education has value in large part because it is not free. Things are valuable because they are in short supply. Computers stopped costing thousands of dollars when they became commodities. Degrees will similarly be cheapened through commoditization.
I’m not making this argument because I am a capitalist. (I am a capitalist who believes we have an obligation to help others.) I’m not making it from some inherent fear of creeping socialism. (My father never read Marx, but he had some very similar ideas.) I believe free secondary education devalues education because I have seen these results first hand.
In Panamá, the government provides free education to any level a citizen wants and is able (academically) to attain. While I was there, I got to know a cab driver whose grandfather was a national hero. This man took me on a driving tour of Cuidad Panamá and showed me the statue the government had erected to honor his grandfather. He worked long hours driving his cab. He would take me to work every morning and drive me to dinner after I got off work. He held a BS and an MBA, but neither of the degrees helped him earn a living because there were so many of them in that market. He made more money driving a cab than by working in his chosen field because there were too many MBAs around for the degree to have value.
When I was working in Edmonton, I met one of the rudest waitresses ever. Contrary to the Canadian stereotype, she was obnoxious and acted like she was doing everyone a favor by being in the same room. One of my hosts knew her story. “You’ll have to forgive her,” he said. “She’s just upset because she has a Master’s degree and can’t find any other work.” I don’t know how much, if anything, the Canadian government contributed to her education.
Now that is not an uncommon story. Even in the United States, I’ve met historians working at Starbucks and marine biologists settling insurance claims. (Of course, I’m giving them credit for being historians and marine biologists primarily because they hold the requisite degrees. And because most of them left their field because they needed to support their families and couldn’t find work.) I also know teachers (with degrees in various fields) who make more money working as bookkeepers than educators. For me, that is the saddest part of this story—the degree to which our society undervalues critical callings (such as teachers and nurses).
As you can see from these stories, universal education is not a panacea. It can actually make the problem of income inequality worse, masking the symptoms at the same time. We need to focus on getting the right education to the people who can use it in the general economy. We need more trade schools and skilled craftsmen. We need more focus on problem solving and creative thinking than rote memorization, the collaborative learning skills I felt undercut individual achievement when I was a student. (That was before I went into business and learned that a team can accomplish far more than any individual.)
We must make better choices in educating our kids in this country. That may include more help from the government in the way of tuition support but maybe not. We need universities that focus more on education that research, that care more about students than publications.
PS. I hope you enjoyed the homage to Click and Clack in the way I numbered the posts in this series. This concludes the fifth half of this series.