Posted by: bkivey | 25 January 2015

Community College Conundrum

Dear Leader’s  approval ratings haven’t been what he would like; polling as low as 40% the first week of November 2014, so he and his puppetmasters advisors have been casting about for a way to appease the electorate. Knowing that dissatisfaction with Obamacare is going to increase as more people ‘find out what’s in it’, and finding it increasingly difficult to hide the fact that an economy can’t grow when you’re actively destroying it,  they’ve hit upon the idea of reducing the community college tuition to $0. Hey! The Republic is in shambles; let’s hand out free stuff!

This is such a bad idea it’s difficult to know where to start, but I’ll take a stab.

I’ll start with a disclaimer. I’m a community college product. I found high school to be boring beyond words, and figured college would be more of the same. They were both school, right? So despite scoring the highest SAT in my high school, and actively recruited by the military to go to college (I killed the ASVAB), I didn’t go. When I was 25 I realized that I wasn’t any better off than at 17, and figured that school might help. I enrolled at the local junior college, and went back to school.

I liked it. A lot. Tuition was very reasonable, and through careful course selection I was able to transfer nearly all my credits to a four-year institution. Community college was a big factor in my ability to graduate with my first undergrad devoid of student debt. Well, that, and qualifying for company scholarships and pretty much living on the Dean’s List. The point is that community college is a viable road to a bachelor’s, and students going that route can save big money.

But making community college ‘free’ is a terrible idea.

There Ain’t No Free Lunch

‘Free’ community college is expected to cost the Federal government (you) tens of billions of dollars per year. Considering the Feds are broke, how ever will they pay for this? Part of the answer is by raising taxes on the middle class. Yes, the same-same middle class President Obama is so fond of praising and trying to ‘help’.

For years there have been college saving plans known as ‘529’ plans under the tax code. People can put after-tax earnings in these plans, and when they withdraw funds for their child’s education, the withdrawals are not taxed. Under the free community college proposal, those same withdrawals will be taxed as ordinary income. So you earn a dollar, it’s taxed at Federal, state, and perhaps local levels, you put part of it aside for your children’s future, and when you withdraw it, it’s taxed again. Does this seem fair to you?

Community College Tuition will Skyrocket

Part of the appeal of community college is the relative affordability compared to four-year institutions. As with any other economic system (see: healthcare); when you flood the market with resources, demand increases, and prices rise. The availability of money is the primary motivating factor in the increase in college tuition. When I went for my second undergrad, the market was so saturated with money that even with a well-paying professional job, I had to take out student loans to afford tuition. OK, there was a mortgage and some other expenses, but still. In a sane world college tuition shouldn’t rise much faster than the rate of inflation. Like healthcare, in higher education there is little connection between services rendered and price of service.

College is Too ‘Affordable’ Now

The whole cache’ of college is that a degree signifies that one has some basic skill training in a professional area and that one has been exposed to a broader world. The implication is that the graduate is a cut above those who didn’t attend. With the ‘everyone must go to college’ push in secondary education arena, vast sums of taxpayer money have been made available to anyone who can cast a shadow. The reality is that only people > 1 SD can truly reap the benefits of a college education.

There are really no economic barriers to attending college in the US. If you’re smart enough, you’ll get scholarships and other financial assistance.  If you are athletic enough, you’ll make the team, and reap the benefits thereof. If you can’t do either, you can go into hock for the majority of your adult life. There just isn’t a big hurdle from the mundane working life to going to school. Yes, if you’re a single parent it’s  hard, but you have to look at your decisions prior before condemning society.

My experience in school is that there were far too many people who were there because they didn’t know what else to do. Going to school was easy, money was there, so there they were, taking up space that a more motivated individual would have better occupied.

Getting into college should be hard. College isn’t merely, or shouldn’t be, Extended High School. The barriers for entry at most American colleges are so low, they may as well be non-existent. But even if someone were to fail entrance on a more rigorous exam, it’s not one-and-done. You could always try again. And if you don’t make it, maybe it’s time to re-examine your life choices.

‘Free’ community college is only going to encourage those without direction to hang out in a State-subsidized classroom while they still don’t know what they want to do.It is, in fact, State-funded babysitting for grown children.

People Are Set Up for Failure

The pernicious aspect of free college, or, let’s get real, race-based admission, is that people who aren’t suited for the task are led believe they are. If you can make the grade, great. Welcome to the expanded universe. But some folks, irregardless of background or skin color or ethnicity, just aren’t up to the task. That’s the reality.  There’s no shame here. People have different abilities, and a society grounded in the reality of natural selection would recognize this. But to tell someone who skated through 12 years of public education that they are somehow ready for rigorous academic trials is to do a great disservice to the institution, the individual, and society.

So what we’re seeing are large numbers of people taking on massive debt, not graduating, and becoming disaffected as they realize they’re stuck with the debt, don’t have job skills, and no degree. This is not a recipe for a happy citizen, or a successful society. There is a saying “Water finds it’s own level’. If the do-gooders in government would stay out of the way, water would have a much easier time.

‘Free’ College Dilutes the Product

One of the axioms of economics is that if a product is in demand, scarcity increases the demand and thus the price (value). De Beers knows this, and if you’ve bought a diamond, you do, too. It’s also axiomatic that if a market is flooded with a commodity, and there are a limited number of buyers, the price (value) of the commodity will decrease.

My first awareness of the US education glut was in the 80’s. I hadn’t yet gone to college, but I had work skills. I noticed that many jobs for which I was skill-wise qualified required a college degree. This was very frustrating. Almost none of the positions I sought required a college education to perform, but it was evident that employers were using a college diploma as a screening tool. This is still evident today, though not to the same degree.

The more people with post-secondary education, the less valuable that credential becomes. Some will say that post-secondary education is necessary, and I wouldn’t disagree. But that education doesn’t have to be spent sitting in a classroom. Nearly everyone requires job training post-high school, but options other than college should be given equal weight.

People are Selling Their Future

I’ve got a proposition for you. I’ll give you money, you go to school, and depending on what your major in, you may be able to pay back in a reasonable time. Understand, you have to pay back the  money whether you get a ‘good’ job or not. And if you don’t graduate, you still owe the money. Deal?

In literary circles, that’s known as a Faustian bargain. In game theory, it’s a low-probability win scenario. Sure, if you major in a technical field, or have extraordinary talent in some other field, you can come out ahead, but for most students, they’ll be on the hook for the majority of their working careers. The  deal in American education is this: 18 year-olds mortgage their future on an uncertain outcome. The Federal government and Big Education encourage this. To give people a ‘free’ two years of college, and make no mistake, this is just the precursor for a full ride to a Bachelor’s, is to exacerbate the problem.

So you get your degree. Hooray! Assuming you didn’t pay then, you’re sure going to pay now. For the rest of your life, you’ll be paying increased taxes so others can get their increasingly meaningless college degree. Feel better?


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