College Is a Commodity, Not a Right

College is a commodity like bread, meat, cars, and homes. It is not a right like life, liberty, and property.

When two people discuss ways to fix the broken American higher education system, and one believes it should be cost-free, they usually talk past each other. They’re simply on different wavelengths.

One is discussing ways to make it so students get what they pay for. The other doesn’t believe students should be paying anything because they don’t see higher education as a commodity.

Here’s how it works: someone pays money to an institution; the institution provides them with the knowledge to pursue a career — no different than someone paying money to an auto dealer in exchange for a car.

Few Americans who believe education should be free believe so because of practicality. They tend to support free higher education on principle. To them, it’s just one of many steps to abandon the capitalist system of exchange. A deeper conversation with them reveals that there isn’t much they consider worthy of commoditization.

But if higher education is too important to be bought and sold, what isn’t? Food? Shelter? Clothing?

If someone’s answer is all of the above, then how much of the above? And who decides how much? A democratically-elected committee?

Returning to the focus on education, how much education is enough per person?

Those who argue that higher education shouldn’t be bought and sold lament that rich kids get the college experience that poor kids can’t afford. Others complain that only privileged kids get to devote four years to studying their hobby or passion, while the underprivileged who do attend have to choose majors that will help them put food on the table later in life.

In their preferred world, everyone gets to spend four years studying whatever they want. Their housing, food, and transportation are covered. If they want to work part-time jobs to earn extra booze money, that’s fine. But I’ve talked to people who believe the government should also give them a small stipend to ensure they enjoy the college experience.

What the pampered citizens in this alternate universe do after they graduate remains a mystery. The pro-free higher education crowd seems to forget that even if the degree itself is not commoditized, the knowledge gained from that degree is.

Having no student debt upon graduation is excellent, but the graduate is still starting from scratch and needs to make a living. That free degree still has to be put into practice in exchange for money to buy food, housing, clothing, etc.

Part of the reason so many college graduates live a miserable five to ten years after graduation is because the degree market was distorted when they chose a major. It was distorted precisely because the state and federal governments tried to ease the costs of a degree. Removing the cost entirely would devastate the market and ruin millions more lives post-graduation.

In a free market, if a parent or someone else is paying for an 18-year-old to learn a skill — and that 18-year-old is sacrificing potential income for four years to learn that skill — all parties involved are going to make sure the skill guarantees that the individual leads a better life after those years than they would have without it.

If, however, the government offers to pay three-fourths of the cost or loan the naive 18-year-old the money, they’re likely to be less careful in picking which skill to learn.

That creates moral hazard. When they get out, many find their skills aren’t in high-enough demand to adequately compensate them for the time lost — not to mention the money they now owe Uncle Sam.

Not having to pay anything back to the government would be fantastic — government student loans shouldn’t exist — but the waste a free college education would create would make that system worse than the broken system we have now.

In that system, college participation would soar. What 18-year-old doesn’t want four years of summer camp, all-expenses-paid, right after high school? More colleges would be built, and tens of thousands of jobs would be created to meet the increased demand.

But the government would never get this money back through tax revenue because students looking for four years of fun would pick the easiest, most interesting majors available regardless of the employment opportunities after graduation.

That would create millions of underemployed — many of whom would have to continue living on the government dole for years after graduation. It would also increase inflation, the need for increased taxes on everyone, and civil unrest.

The privileged whose parents pay for everything and those who get scholarships can major in low financially rewarding majors because someone else is consciously risking their money. Even then, the risk is less than if anyone who wanted could major in degrees of passion. In that alternate world, financial gain in these majors would diminish because of the increased supply.

Most Americans over a century have believed that state governments should provide children with the bare essentials in education. If making one’s way in the world now requires a four-year degree, voters should find ways to improve the K-12 education system rather than effectively expanding it to 16 grades.

Keeping higher education a commodity protects graduates from excessive competition in their chosen fields, which would render them useless. It also protects the economy from inflation and the need for excessive taxation.

No one knows how much education is enough education or what field is preferable for how many people. Only individuals can make those decisions based on the potential reward for the sacrifices made. Free college would distort those decisions.

Originally published on Medium

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