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College education has more and more been described by the political left as a right to which citizens ought to be entitled. This view has been popularized among left-leaning students, many of whom are energized by ruinously expensive college loans. They clamor for the “fair solution”, namely that the government should pay for all of it. The effort to make college a right is a disastrous proposition. It is a dangerous pipe-dream that could devastate an already rickety higher education sector. There are problems with the way student loans and college fees operate at present, but this is not the way to fix it.
There is no fundamental right of individuals to be allowed to take four years free of charge to learn new skills that will benefit them or how to be better citizens. The state’s duty is to provide a baseline of care, which in the case of education secondary school more than provides. If individuals want more they should pay for it themselves.
Higher Education is a Service
College education, like any professional skills-development undertaking, is a service, one that people should pay for. Rights exist to provide people with the necessities of life. Some people may never have the “opportunity” (ie. wealth) to visit Hawai’i, yet that is not unfair and the state should not be expected to fund every citizen’s tropical vacation.
Yet even in the presence of fees, access to scholarships and loans make it possible for people from disadvantaged economic backgrounds to find their way into university. In this way there is a degree of equality of opportunity in so far as those who are able are afforded the opportunities financial incapacity would deny them. If people want to take advantage of the networking opportunities available in university and the employment benefits available to graduates, then they may pay for it.
Endless Entitlements, Endless Costs
Every action has an opportunity cost. If people are willing to take loans to pay for the education that will likely allow them to earn far more than they would without one, then they should be willing to pay for the privilege.
Furthermore, it can actually be quite beneficial to society at large, to an extent, that university graduates seek swift employment due to debt, since it forces them to become productive members of society more rapidly than they might have done. For example, in Ireland where higher education is free graduates often take a year or two to travel and “find themselves” while giving little or nothing back to the society that has financed their degrees. It is good that people begin contributing to the economic life of society after graduating from university, rather than frittering away their youths in unproductive pursuits.
The social-democratic model, most prevalent in Europe, is a failure. The system of paying for universal healthcare, education, pensions, etc. threatens to bankrupt the countries maintaining them; it is simply unsustainable. The cost of paying for free university education is ruinously high. The government money needed to be channeled into universities to provide for free education, as well as into various other generous social welfare benefits, has been a case of borrowing from future generations to finance current consumption. For these countries to survive, and lest other countries attempt to follow suit with similar models, they must rethink what they can afford to provide freely to citizens.
In the case of education, it seems fair to say that all states should offer access to their citizens to primary and secondary education opportunities, since the skills acquired during such education are absolutely necessary for citizens to function effectively within society; reading, writing, basic civics, etc. are essential knowledge which the state is well-served in providing.
University, on the other hand, is not essential to life in the same way. People can be functional and responsible citizens without it; it can be nice to attend, but one can live effectively and prosper without it. For this reason, the government ought to consider university in the same way it does any non-essential service; people may pay for it if they wish to partake, but they cannot view it as an entitlement owed by the state that will simply provide it to everyone. The cost is just too high, and the state must act from a utilitarian perspective in this case. Instituting fees will place the cost of education upon those wishing to reap the benefits of education, and not on the taxpayer.
When the state offers a universal service, inefficiencies inevitably arise with its provision. There are four principal economic problems that arise from free university education.
First, there is a major problem of resources being lost to bureaucracy. In a state-funded university system, tax money is wasted on paying civil servants to deal with procurement questions with regard to funding for universities, as well as in misallocation of funds due to bureaucrats’ lack of expertise and specialist knowledge necessary to know the correct funding decisions, which independent universities would be able to make on their own more efficiently.
Second, when the state funds all university education for free, funding will be allocated to unprofitable courses. As there is no profit motive or price mechanism driving these decisions, there is no way of reaching an efficient decision except by guesswork.
The funding of students who are not really interested in attending university or who are apathetic toward higher education creates the third problem. Such students only attend because it is free to do so, and it would be much better to enact a system whereby such students cannot claim a trip to university as an entitlement. A moral hazard problem emerges among such students. They are allowed to reap all the benefits of education, while needing to incur none of the costs. The student who goes to university to waste three or four years and study an easy liberal arts course imposes an unjust cost on society, who has to pay for these students who are not in university to gain from it, but merely to waste time and not work hard.
The fourth problem of free university education is saturation of degree-holders in the market. In order to have value, a degree must be a signal of quality. When everyone has a degree, the value of such a qualification plummets. The ability for employers to ascertain high quality potential employees is thus presented with greater difficulty in making a selection. The flipside of this is that graduates end up serving in jobs that do not require a degree-holding individual to do them. Thus, a system of fees is superior to free education because it allows for more efficient allocation of resources to universities and to individuals.
Reforming Higher Education
The way forward for higher education demands serious consideration. We are living in the midst of what could well prove to be a true bubble in the higher education market. What will happen when the bubble bursts is an open question.
Reform must focus on removing existent distortions on the incentives of students and education-providers alike. The answer lies in restoring sanity to the marketplace, not increasing the influence of an already over-mighty government in education.