The danger in transforming college education into a political right is that it obscures college as an investment and blinds people to the reality that someone has to fund it.
“That obvious truth is missing from much of our political debate and the growing panic over student loans, which casts education debt as a tragedy rather than an investment,” Shirley Ort, the associate provost at the University of North Carolina of Chapel Hill wrote for Inside Higher Ed.
The approach, while upholding college as important, devalues it by making it an entitlement. It could also dissuade low-income and first-time students from enrolling in college, as the horror stories about student debt overwhelm them. By thinking they can’t afford college from the beginning, they don’t realize the potential benefits of it, and thus avoid it.
Given that students get the greatest benefit from a college degree, it isn’t unreasonable to think that they should invest in the pursuit of the degree. A society might indirectly benefit from the greater level of knowledge and creativity that results from a more educated populace, but those externalities don’t justify a drive for free college. Great musicians, for instance, don’t have a government-subsidized program to buy their instruments. When someone is successful in business and receive subsidies, they’re viewed with suspicion. Individuals take risks to improve themselves, yet only with college do politicians promise subsidies as if it’s a human right.
In Ort’s capacity, UNC launched a program targeted at low-income students for a “no-loans aid program” to get over the mental barrier of taking out loans.
“It was meant to overcome the impression of debt as a hardship and a barrier. Our own research showed that it wasn’t a hardship — students taking out modest loans for a quality education are almost invariably better off,” she wrote.
When students invest in themselves and know the risks, it can incentivize them to complete a degree. The biggest concern over loans, though, is completion. Ort is correct in that students are usually better off with a degree, but completion rates aren’t as talked about as enrollment numbers.
Colleges have a completion problem, not an accessibility problem. The heft of student debt that holds back students from a successful student is carried by students who take out loans for college, then drop out. Those are the ones struggling to repay debt and find a decent job. Free college would obscure that problem by assuming away costs of textbooks, fees, and living expenses.
If that happens, free college would become the “trap” that Ort fears. The free college initiative would waste the time of students and the money of taxpayers, leaving both worse off.
“It would reverse the democratization of higher education, devastating community colleges and public universities that are already stretched thin in their effort to serve a diversifying student body,” Ort wrote.
College is an investment as well as a consumption. If “free” college comes to fruition, it could undermine the value of a degree and make the system, ripe for reform, even stodgier of a behemoth to fix.