Should the government pay for everyone’s college?

June 6, 2021 • 2:00 pm

Here’s Bill Maher’s take on Biden’s new $1.8 trillion plan to subsidize higher education for Americans (i.e., everyone pays for it). According to Forbes, the plan has these provisions:

President Biden today released a $1.8 trillion domestic spending proposal, called the “American Families Plan,” that would transform elements of American safety net programs, with a particular focus on higher education. Here’s what’s in it — and what’s not.

  • $109 billion for free community college. The plan would “ensure that first-time students and workers wanting to reskill can enroll in a community college to earn a degree or credential for free,” without incurring any student loan debt. The White House estimates that 5.5 million students could benefit. Free community college would also be available to DREAMers under the proposal.
  • Expansion of Pell Grant program. Pell Grants are financial aid awards for low-income students that do not have to be repaid. The current maximum Pell Grant award is $6,495; Biden’s plan would increase the maximum award amount by $1,400. The larger award would be available to DREAMers, as well.
  • $62 billion to invest in completion and retention activities at colleges and universities. According to the U.S. Department of Education, students who do not complete their degree programs are three times as likely to default on their student loans. Biden’s proposal would provide significant funding to colleges and universities to keep students on track for degree completion; this funding would include “wraparound services ranging from child care and mental health services to faculty and peer mentoring; emergency basic needs grants; practices that recruit and retain diverse faculty; transfer agreements between colleges; and evidence-based remediation programs.”
  • Two years of subsidized tuition at HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs. Biden’s plan includes a new $39 billion program that provides two years of subsidized tuition for students from families earning less than $125,000 enrolled in four-year Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs). The proposal also includes $5 billion to expand existing institutional aid grants to these schools, and “$2 billion directed towards building a pipeline of skilled health care workers with graduate degrees.”

Note that the program does not, as Maher implies, subsidize college for well off families, like Lori Laughlin’s: it’s aimed at students who are too poor to have access to college, and is thus a good liberal program in every way I can see.

Maher doesn’t like the plan, which he sees as misguided in many ways. First, he doesn’t like it because those without college educations will pay for those who do. That I reject, for all of us pay for secondary education even if we don’t have kids. That’s because we see secondary education as a universal good for society. Those who don’t drive are still taxed for building roads, for having roads benefits us all whether or not we drive. Same for college.

He also sees a college education as not generally worth it, just as “a racket that sells you a very expensive ticket to the upper middle class.” (Maher got his ticket to Cornell University.) He calls colleges “luxury day-care centers”, and criticizes things like college water parks and useless courses, all of which, of course, are risible. But he’s exaggerating what college means to many people. An education that improves us all. After all, the program doesn’t force you to go to college if you don’t want to or don’t have to for your career plans.

Finally, Maher mourns the rising costs of college and the unconscionable grade inflation (from 15% A grades in 1960 to 45% now), a trend that is distressing since it reduces the ability to judge accomplishment.

While Maher points out the pecuniary advantages of going to college—it has a substantial effect on one’s future income—he seems to think that college education is pretty much useless for many professions. As he says “The answer is not to make college free; the answer is to make it unnecessary, which it already is for most jobs”. But even if that were true, that doesn’t eliminate the monetary advantages that already exist. To get rid of those seems nearly impossible, and for some professions—like medicine, chemistry, and engineering—there’s no way to just “learn on the job” without formal training.

I’m not sure what got Maher’s panties in a wad about this, but I can say that this is not one of his better pieces.

h/t: Eli

89 thoughts on “Should the government pay for everyone’s college?

  1. That I reject, for all of us pay for secondary education even if we don’t have kids.

    Though college students are adults rather than minors, which makes a difference.

    As for educating people at college being a universal good, and thus a call on the taxpayer, yes, society needs engineers and medics. But does a degree in gender studies or English literature, or indeed much of the arts/humanities, really benefit society in general (as opposed to benefiting that student) that it should be paid for out of taxation?

    1. I regard gender studies (and other “oppressed-group studies”) useless. However, graduates in English literature and arts/humanities become e.g. school teachers, whom society clearly needs.

      1. Surely the whole project would make more sense if it allowed everyone to get a shot at higher education of some sort, but not necessarily college? Include the chance to go to a trade school or take a Class 1 or heavy plant license and you’d see far more utility at the end. Quite apart from the woes of dumbed-down for-profit universities, it must be obvious to all that if all have a degree then the degree serves no purpose in furthering an individual’s chances in life?
        Living in a small community I have a strong feeling that college education and IQ are pretty useless indicators of how valued a member of this community is—if you are good at your job or trade and an honest dealer you will be welcomed and fit right in. A good mechanic, plumber or carpenter is at least as valuable to me as yet another retired professional or academic (and that’s a dig at myself, not you, Jerry!)

  2. Off the top of my head, this relates to Peter Turchin and Fourth Turning, and their views on surplus elites. See: We Are About To Mint Even More Excess Elites, John Mauldin.
    How about encouraging training some crafts and trades people, some artists, some entrepreneurs; an emphasis on skills in personal finance, old fashioned critical thinking, and self-care. Peace Out.

    1. Trades are education. This either or argument is misguided. Often I see people with no education align themselves to trades. Yeah they are educated in that trade. They had to go to school and do apprentices and take exams and certify.

      1. Yes, this division is part of the problem. It would serve the country well if the lines between educated and uneducated were blurred, while simultaneously boosting education.

      2. I don’t know about Pell grants specifically, but many of the proposals apply to attendance at trade schools as well as to academic colleges. I know that’s true here in NM. Free tuition at state schools applies to ALL state higher education schools, not limited to the university system.

        I have a bumper sticker on my vehicle that says, “Knowing more is ALWAYS better than knowing less.” That, in a nutshell, is my belief.


  3. This Maher piece also made me scratch my head to try to figure out what was so bad about college. In my decades of experience as an executive who has read countless reports and communiques from both staff and board members, I found that those with master’s or higher degrees were the best writers, followed by those with bachelor’s degrees, in turn followed by those with only a high school diploma. In other words, the more educated, the better the writer.

    1. One can ask which way causation flows, do those who pursue higher degrees become better writers, or do better writers pursue higher degrees?

      1. Indeed, and more specifically, do better writers pursue higher degrees in order to prove their intelligence and conscientiousness to potential employers? I do think there is a lot of that going on, especially at elite levels. However, Biden’s proposals are not aimed at elite students.

      2. Interesting question. I would answer that those who pursue higher degrees naturally become better writers because of the quantity and quality of writing expected from them by their professors. Sure, a good writer may have an advantage at the outset, but if you really want the degree, you will become a better writer in order to earn it no matter what caliber writer you are to begin with.

      3. One can ask which way causation flows, [sic] do those who pursue higher degrees become better writers, or do better writers pursue higher degrees?

        That may be a false dichotomy, in that what you’ve described seems more likely to constitute a virtuous cycle.

    2. What made me a better writer? Not university (undergrad). High school yes, bosses editing my reports, yes. Editing other people’s reports, definitely.

  4. I was fortunate to get my university education in Britain in the early 1980s, when it was essentially free to everyone. Tuition was paid for, and most students also got a grant to cover living expenses. The grant was reduced if your parents were well off, but it was enough to pay for accommodation, food, books and the occasional treat, even in London. Back then, only around 15% of 18-year-olds went to university, so the model worked pretty well.

    In the late 1990s, the Blair government decided that the participation rate should be raised to 50%, and they introduced tuition fees of £3000 a year. They also abolished the grant for living expenses and replaced it with a student loan system. The Tory/LibDem coalition raised fees to £9000 a year in 2010. Today, the higher education sector is a marketplace where students are customers, with the inevitable dire consequences.

    I’m thankful that I got my university education forty years ago.

    1. ditto …. I finished my tertiary education in 1980, and promptly left the UK. Strange I always thought it was Maggie that started tuition fees, but iturns out it was Blair the socialist,

      From what I recall, those that went to polys also got subsidized tuition. Do you remember?

      1. I always thought it was Maggie that started tuition fees, but iturns out it was Blair the socialist

        You think Tony Blair was a socialist? That’s a good one.

        The Blair government wanted half of all British school leavers to get a University level higher education. There were two problems with this. The first was that the school system wasn’t producing enough teenagers who had the ability to cope with University level learning. The second was that it would be quite expensive.

        They solved the second problem by introducing tuition fees and student loans.

        They solved the first problem by allowing pretty much any higher education college to call itself a university. In some cases this was a good thing. I think the polytechnics suffered from snobbery. For example, when I was looking for a university, I was told the best place in the country to study computer science was at Hatfield Polytechnic. I dismissed that idea out of hand purely because it was a poly.It’s called Hertfordshire University now, and I would now probably give it more consideration. In other cases, it didn’t work out so well. In my opinion the degrees handed out by some higher education institutions are not worth the paper they are written on.

        1. You think Tony Blair was a socialist? That’s a good one.

          Obviously my tongue in cheek emitters were set at too low a power setting.
          Having said that, having lived next door to the States for thirty odd years, I think many USians would see him as a socialist. Though looking over the pond today, it would seem like the Labour party is in a bit of a muddle. Understatement settings set on maximum.

    2. It’s not completely true to say that university education was free for everybody. My grant (I graduated in 1987) which covered all of my living expenses was paid entirely by my parents, who were not poor but who I would not have described as “well off”. Tuition was paid by the local education authority, so that part was effectively free.

      You can argue, I suppose, that accommodation, food and beer (there was a lot of beer) don’t count as part of your education. After all, while I was at school, my parents paid for all of my living expenses too.

      I thought what the Blair government and subsequent Tory governments did to the higher education system was awful and I am also pretty glad I went through it before the introduction of tuition fees and the expansion.

      1. ditto … My family I would describe as working class … my Dad worked most Saturday mornings for the overtime, my mum at times did menial work to help with luxuries. Basically two thirds of my living expenses were paid by the ever suffering tax payer, the rest by my Dad.

        Means testing seems fair to some degree, but I did meet a student who did not get a grant and the parents would not cough up the dough.

        1. One of my fiends at college was a student whose parents owned the Post Offices, had a full grant and a generous subsidy from his parents. If you owned a business, you could easily game the system. However, he was one of two people on our course who owned a car. Therefore, he was very popular.

  5. Acquiring and sharing knowledge is the job of a Univeristy. It isn’t there to get you into the middle class or find you a high paying job. The problem is that citizens increasingly see universities as doing those things I mentioned. And thus the cheating and grade inflation and stupid entry requirements.

    1. Yes – correlation is not causation. The value of any school is of course the faculty and all that, but I would argue _especially_ the student body – the peers among which any individual student will challenge and be met with challenges in the process of understanding material.

      The student whim Maher criticized as not being interested in education per se but more for “game day and partying”, once at a school, very well might reconsider their superficial quip – nobody knows. But it is a fact that education will demand one adapts to intellectual challenges and the more of that the better.

  6. I suspect that Bill Maher was using this as vehicle to air some of his pet peeves. It is hard to believe he’s really against sending more kids to college and society having to pay for it. It may also be the result of self-reflection of the form, “I went to college but everything valuable I learned in the school of hard knocks.” I understand that feeling but I think college is a place to learn formal skills that are of value for the rest of one’s life. The perceived value of the college experience is also victim of the well known difficulty of remembering what it was like not to know something. Maher can’t see what his life would have been like if he hadn’t gone to college.

    I haven’t made any kind of deep analysis of how money to boost education should best be spent but my first reaction is that I would like to see it spent in a way that boosts meritocracy. I don’t want to see the money being given to people who don’t even want to go to college. I fear that the current proposed plans take the easy way out and dump money on the problem without worrying too much about the details of how it gets used.

    After listening to James Carville on how many Republicans view the educated coastal elites, it would be nice to spend this money in a way that helps close the gap. Unfortunately GOP politicians would find a way to weaponize such a move against the Dems and their educated coastal elites. Of course, it should be pointed out that many of those very same GOP politicians are educated, coastal, and elite.

    1. He acts like a typical smart person who avoided all math and science education. He is rational so can’t deny the value of science and technology in building and maintaining modern society. But he totally lacks a scientist’s or engineer’s way of thinking about the world.

  7. Countries that I know to have a heavily subsidized university education – such as mine (Bulgaria) – also have government-mandated positions in universities for which students compete, meaning that not all applicants can get in. That is, for attractive majors, there is craziness that in the USA is seen only for top colleges. I wonder whether Americans are ready to accept such a restriction on the access to university. I also wonder how applicants would be selected, given the recent trend to put emphasis on race rather than merit.

  8. I realize many readers of this blog won’t believe this, but our taxes don’t pay for anything the Federal government does (note this applies only to things the Federal government pays for, but not to state and local government operations).

    The U.S. government creates money out of nothing every time it pays for something – that’s just the nature of money in the 21st century, a least for the creator of a sovereign fiat currency, as the U. S. is (“sovereign fiat currency” means the government is the monopoly issuer of a currency it creates from nothing and is not tied to the value of some commodity – like gold – or to the value of another currency, and that said government has not incurred debt that must be paid in another currency).

    Here’s but one example:

    Also, having a sovereign fiat currency means the government can never run out of that currency – the government can never involuntarily NOT afford to pay its bills. That’s not to say politicians can’t grandstand about not increasing the debt limit, but not doing so would lead to voluntary default. That would be just plain dumb.

    As something of an aside, that all means that the real limit to Federal spending is not if we have enough money, but rather inflation. The key question is, does the economy have the capacity to supply the goods and services the money being created is intended to purchase? Inflation is ALWAYS due to the interplay of two factors – money supply and supply of goods and services. Too much money chasing too few goods and services will result in inflation.

    I write all this as prelude to this: no one should be getting their panties in a twist because they think their taxes will be paying for other people’s education. That is just not how Federal spending works in the 21st Century. The pertinent questions are a) will this spending cause inflation? and b) if not, is it still a good use of what is really the public’s money?

    1. “The U.S. government creates money out of nothing every time it pays for something”

      So where is my tax money going then? Do they throw that away? I think you’re exaggerating here. While the US government can indeed print money to pay its debts, that’s not without consequence and doesn’t mean that all it spends is some sort of fake money. Google “can the US print more money to pay its debts” (without quotes) for many articles that explain this much better than I could.

      1. I understand your skepticism – I was skeptical of the ideas I espoused in my post not very long ago. But, no, I’m not exaggerating, and I’d say it’s more accurate to say your tax payments are deleted rather than thrown away, as I’d guess they’re most likely made as electronic transfers between your bank and the Treasury.

        I never wrote there’s no consequence of the Federal government creating money to pay its debts. As I wrote, too much government spending will cause inflation.

        By the way, isn’t all money “fake” in a way? I mean, money only has value because we all agree that it has value. There is nothing inherently valuable about a dollar bill, nor, really, about a metal like gold.

        I did read through some of the links that resulted from the search you suggested. Many that I read echoed what I wrote: the consequence of too much government spending is inflation. Some others repeated misconceptions that I’ve seen debunked by economists I follow. Just one example: post-WWI Germany, Zimbabwe, and Argentina are often portrayed as examples of the dangers of “printing money.”

        The problem with using them as examples is that those countries’ economies all suffered severe damage to their productive capacities, leading to a dramatic curtailing of the goods people wanted to buy. In Germany’s and Venezuela’s cases, both had considerable debt in foreign currencies.

        Full disclosure – what I’m describing is Modern Monetary Theory.

        I’m going to send a request into the void: Do some research into Modern Monetary Theory. Here’s a short interview with Stephanie Kelton, professor of Economics and the author of The Deficit Myth that is an exemplary primer on MMT:

        If that at all piques your interest, then read her book. It is the little red pill (Matrix reference) of economics.

      2. He’s sort of correct in a sense, A dollar bill is an IOU from the government to whomever it buys services off. It’s a unit of government debt. When you’re paying your taxes, you are actually handing those IOUs back to the government.

        Let’s say you re a baker and you want to buy some flour off me, the miller. If neither of us have any money, you can give me an IOU for the flour. Then you bake some bread. If I want some bread you can give it to me in exchange for the IOU that you gave me for the flour. Does the IOU continue to exist?

        It’s more complicated, of course, because printing money leads to inflation and the government can cover the deficit by borrowing money off other people (mainly the Chinese as far as the USA seems to be concerned).

        1. “He’s sort of correct in a sense, …”

          Which I acknowledged by calling it an exaggeration. The ability to print money doesn’t imply that it is all printed.

  9. “While Maher points out the pecuniary advantages of going to college—it has a substantial effect on one’s future income—he seems to think that college education is pretty much useless for many professions.“

    I am very saddened that the debate on the value of attending college has devolved to how well it serves as a trade school. I guess that I am totally naïve as to have believed that at least one part of the college education experience is to train the mind to think critically and rationally about the world. This was accomplished by requiring all students, regardless of their majors, to take a core group of liberal arts courses. A course in gender studies would not qualify. I gather this is no longer the case at many institutions. This is the tragedy of modern college education.

    1. I don’t necessarily agree about the uselessness of “gender” studies, or various racial/cultural studies. I think it depends on how these topics are approached.

      Much information has been left out of our history curriculum, which generally focuses on the dominant viewpoint. That makes a whole lot of people invisible, plus, a single viewpoint is a single viewpoint, so it is by definition limited.

      If courses are informational rather than political, that in itself can broaden a discussion. You don’t need to embrace a given position to open up the idea that in any era, there are multiple viewpoints. From there those viewpoints can be explored and discussed, without the professor having an agenda about their relative merits.

      What’s wrong with that?


        1. I’ll second that. It was the liberal arts setting that came with my science major that made it all worthwhile.

    2. I gather this is no longer the case at many institutions. This is the tragedy of modern college education.

      (I can’t be bothered to look up the numbers, so treat this with approprite scepticism):
      When I went to college in the late 60’s the participation rate was very much lower than today’s, and the participating students were generally in tune with the colleges’ liberal-education academic orientation.

      Today, with much greater participation, I expect such students are very much a minority, so most colleges need to provide less traditionally “academic” curricula; one can’t really blame them for that.

      One can more justly blame them for their current position in the Hoffer sequence:
      Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.

  10. I didn’t think it nailed a point like some of his segments do, but I took it as a manifestation of something he does well: identifying something okay or good in society, but pointing out there’s such a thing as anything getting out of hand. He points out that colleges have spent frivolously, not all students’ time in college is well-availed, and both college and non-college backgrounds can be overly stigmatized.

    Another point – which he could have raised but didn’t – is that knowledge is so much more accessible today than ever than ten or twenty years ago, with or without college. Money spent on college today isn’t a waste, but isn’t as much a necessity for as many people to achieve what they’re after.

  11. You can find fault with anything and that is what Maher does for a living. A couple of things he said are true – the cost of higher education is crazy too much. Going to college at the high end schools is a joke for the privileged or those few who get the scholarships. College has it’s really stupid areas like free college for all the athletes who rarely graduate or go to school. But many jobs simply require school to get in the door. It has always been this way and usually the reason for more education is in the requirements to do the job. A free run at a two year college might be a good thing. Lots of people attempt school but do not finish so if we are going to pay lets do it on the lower cost side of the two year program. If they finish then maybe try for more. There have also always been lots of people who are not cut out for higher education. We need more money going to trade schools to train people for things like carpenters, electricians and so on. Mechanics of all kinds. You don’t need an education to be a carpenter but if you intend to maybe have your own business as many in this trade do, that higher education may be just what you need.

    For me – I got my 4 years of college mostly from the GI bill many years ago. School was much cheaper back then but it was important to get you in the door and amount to something. Lots of kids do not understand this when they get through high school even when the parents tell them – go to school. The parents that did not go to school know what the hell they are talking about. Everyone’s dad is not Bill Gates.

    1. Randall – minor aside – perhaps you meant ‘you don’t need a “college” education to be a carpenter.’ From framers to finishers, carpentry requires an awful lot of knowledge, gained by “education.”

  12. I think subsidized college education would be fine with some provisions. Something along these lines:
    – It’s need-based only.
    – It’s available regardless of race and college (not exclusive to HBCUs, TCUs, and MSIs).
    – It’s only for professions that really require a university education, such as medicine, engineering, and chemistry.
    – Except for the mentioned professions, it’s only for majors in demand in the job market outside of academia (no gender studies).
    – To be eligible, colleges must have objective acceptance standards (SAT, ACT or achievement tests) commensurate with the desired major.
    – To be eligible, colleges can’t continue to raise tuition and fees without justification.

    1. Sounds reasonably good, and is more or less in line with essentially free university education in much of Europe. But why based on need only? One could make the same argument for all schooling, that is, rich parents would have to pay money to public schools.

      Of course, another difference is that essentially all universities in Europe are state universities and non-profit entities.

      1. Yes, probably all state universities should be free for all.

        I was considering a key difference I see between universities and schools, though. Schooling is indispensable to be able to function effectively in modern society, whereas the same can’t be said of university education. Therefore, everybody goes to school (including the children of the poor) and everybody contributes to it through their taxes (in proportion to their income), and it’s so beneficial to society as a whole, that it’s not unfair that the childless must contribute too (as Jerry said).

        But I’m not sure that rationale quite applies to university education. Subsidizing university tuition for everyone seems to create a situation that seems particularly unfair: people who didn’t or couldn’t go to university, and who therefore are less financially secure, having to pay higher taxes to partially subsidize the university tuition of those who don’t need the help.

        1. I see no reason why we should think that University education doesn’t serve the greater good of society. Having highly educated specialists is vital for a modern society. You don’t need to have everyone need to become a doctor in order to benefit from training a small number of doctors in that role. Same is true of many professions. A few specialised individuals are better than none or demanding everyone be trained in everything.

    2. Interesting ideas. Complicating details are that our American universities also support enormous sports programs with large stadiums. It is a grotesquerie that is hard to get ones’ head around. Then there are the hefty salaries of the coaches and college administrators. I would hate to think that taxpayer dollars go to all that largesse.

  13. The US has had free public 1-12 education since the 19th century. Given the ensuing information boom, it seems high time to increase that by a couple years.

    1. Actually it might be a good idea to put more into those first 12. Better paid teachers at those levels would help a great deal. Might be about to retain some good ones.

  14. I disagree. Bill Maher is correct that many college programs are useless and many professions that require a college degree don’t actually need one and use it for weeding out people. Nobody says that engineers or doctors shouldn’t get a degree but a gender studies graduate shouldn’t be getting her four-year all-expenses paid vacation to learn how to sling about “heteronormativity” financed by a working-class waitress.

    In most European countries where college is free, there are strict limits on the number of places which are filled based on meritocracy and test results, not athletics and legacy admissions. In countries like Germany there’s even a separate high school track for people who want to go to university (gymnasium) and other schoolchildren are guided to apprenticeships and trade schools.

    College education is not an unalloyed good that should be given for free to everyone. I know it sounds heretical to you as an academic but I think your knowledge may be limited by your experience at U. of Chicago. I’ve worked in higher education myself and I have met many people who shouldn’t be in college at all and who’d be much better served by forgoing the “college experience” in favor of getting a job experience instead.

  15. No. The more money that is recycled through the government, the more chance for corruption and chicanery there is.

  16. Rickflick. He did get a COVID-19 vaccine–announced it on his first program back from quarantine– and in a previous column this was also pointed out by a reader

  17. The government enabling and encouraging students from any background to study subjects needed to fill gaps in current skill requirements (recouped through the tax system when they achieve higher earnings) seems reasonable?

    If only the UK had used such a system in the past it wouldn’t currently be so over-reliant on foreign doctors, nurses, and veterinarians, many of whom are reportedly leaving now because they feel unwelcome post-Brexit.

  18. After being graduated from a university or trade school program, loans made by the student would be paid by federal taxes – this would allow motivated people to avoid years of financial pay-back and also prevent a great deal of tax-money from being used on people who enroll in classes then don’t complete them satisfactorily or don’t use them to complete a program.

    I vehemently am opposed to anyone being able to enroll and take classes at tax-payer expense without skin in the game

    1. But there is some skin in the game … in my case (UK essentially free tertiary education) I left university three years behind in terms of salary and progression. Ended up doing a PhD … that was another four years with no effective salary. So how long would it have taken me catch up on the lost income? Never tried working it out.

      Without the leg up from the government I could never have afforded the education. The debt would have been prohibitive at the time.

  19. I thought that Maher was clearly onto something that too many people are in denial about.
    It is axiomatically asserted that more people going to college is a good thing, yet as Maher points out, -the cost of a college education is and has been rising at an unsustainable level
    -these costs are not reflected in the quality of education students are getting, there is a dramatic increase in frivolous amenities like water parks and the proportion of graduates of frivolous subjects like film or gender study which offer dubious societal benefit.
    -even in the professions we claim to care about, we seem to be producing more scientists and academics than we can afford to fund as it is. Every scientist I know claims that the major part of their job is scrounging for money, writing grant proposals which they rarely get, the wages paid within academia are famously pathetic for most people within it, garbagemen make better money on average, doesn’t that indicate a supply glut?

    The value of an education is indisputable, but these days, you don’t need to go to a brick and mortar institution to get one, particularly given how the tuition costs have gone up, but we do need some way of bestowing credentials, maybe there’s a better way to do this other than enabling everyone to go to college for free, especially given that as more people do, the less a college degree will be worth, which is the whole point for most people anyway.

  20. I think one of the main drawbacks so a society where more people go to university / college is that it doesn’t necessarily improve outcomes for society as a whole. It creates a state where education becomes a hoop one needs to jump through in order to have a chance at a better-paying job, leaving behind a large amount of the population from that same opportunity despite higher education not really being related to on-the-job success* in many cases.

    I think this in turn makes us lose sight of the bigger picture – that the meritocratic story around education takes away from the obligation a society has to ensure anyone can make a living. When those who don’t go to college are left with limited career options and very few lucrative ones, there’s a fundamental problem with your higher education is used. Individually it makes sense to get a degree if one can because it’s implicitly necessary, but we get to a point where we are running as fast as we can to stay in the same place.

    There are plenty of reasons to fund higher education, to support people getting an education, and having an educated society. But I think the focus on tweaking eligibility at the margins isn’t going to do much to help those who live on the margins beyond a select few. The tyranny of merit needs examination.

    *Of course there are some fields where there’s a large correlation (STEM comes to mind)

    1. Having a strong meritocracy shouldn’t prevent the society from having a good safety net. There are always those that are going to try to abuse the safety net but society has to invent mechanisms that prevent that from happening. Nothing is going to be perfect. There will be people who rise that don’t merit it, people who fall through the safety net, and people who unfairly game the system. Society has to work against these things but also accept that they won’t go to zero.

      1. It shouldn’t, but it does. Because of the implication of merit is that those at the bottom are by definition losers. Michael Sandel’s new book argues the case quite well. Even looking at the rhetoric of rising, the focus is well and truly on allowing the poor to have a chance at breaking into the meritocratic system rather than trying to fix things so that the poor don’t suffer. Making education universally accessible and affordable are laudatory aims and will help a lot of people escape poverty. But that escape through education only helps those who obtain it, and those who don’t get condescended to that they should have studied harder and gone to college.

        It’s like trying to solve the unaffordability if housing by setting aside a few apartments as rent controlled. The few who get those apartments will benefit greatly, but it won’t solve the greater problem. It just masks over it…

        The difficulty, though, is the notion that merit comes from higher education, which fuels credentialism and the race for prestige in terms of institutional association. Getting into Harvard matters not because Harvard is a superior educational institution, but because the credential of being a Harvard graduate matters. There’s no guarantee that a Harvard graduate is going to be a better citizen or employee or whatever credential one who went to a Midwestern state school or even a community college, yet the prize of Harvard and other Ivy League schools gives the illusion that those who get it deserve the successes that come from having it.

        1. [T]he prize of Harvard and other Ivy League schools gives the illusion that those who get it deserve the successes that come from having it.

          “Preparation H”

  21. Oh I agree with you 100% PCC (E). Maher is usually spot on with politics, and class but he’s wrong here. And he’s put my nose out of place with his various anti-vaxer and medical “theories” over the years. That I can’t stand.

  22. I worry about the investment in retention and completion because the easiest way to improve completion rates is to lower standards. In fact in the absence of more investment in elementary and high school education it may be the only way to significantly improve completion rates.

  23. I agree with Chris C. Surely keeping the worst-performing students enrolled who shouldn’t be in college will drag down academic standards. It would force schools to create a lower tier curriculum to accomodate and hand-hold those who either lack the talent, experience, skill, motivation, or work ethic to be there.

    Paying more taxes to help the lowest performing quintile squeak through graduation to reduce the likelihood that they’ll default on their student loans strikes me as insane educational policy. How about don’t admit them if they don’t qualify? They should fail and/or drop out. Paying to keep them IN school, provide free child care (maybe they should wait to have children), creates perverse incentives to defer taking adult responsibility for one’s future. After all, people flunk out of basic training in the Army.

    1. Bryan Caplan is an economist who wrote a book a couple of years ago criticizing the traditional college educational system as mostly ineffective and a huge waste of money, and the reviews I read were interesting.

      I just went to YouTube and found several interviews with him on that subject so maybe I can get the jest of his arguments without buying the book.

  24. I think Bill’s way off on this one. Granted, universities have become way too expensive and cushy, but don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    Having an educated populace is vital to how democracy works.
    Having a broad college education can help you understand the nuances of foreign policy, public health, economics, history, personal finance, politics, etc., all of which would make you a better voter and citizen.

    Going to college isn’t just a job prep program, it’s supposed to broaden your world view and deepen your knowledge and wisdom. Sure, you don’t need a full college education to learn to be a welder and being a welder is a great job and vital to a good manufacturing sector of the economy.

    But we need that welder to also be a critical thinker with the ability to discern what is real and what is just FauxNews propaganda and Trump bluster. Making people smarter and less gullible is a good thing.

    1. “Going to college isn’t just a job prep program, it’s supposed to broaden your world view and deepen your knowledge and wisdom. Sure, you don’t need a full college education to learn to be a welder and being a welder is a great job and vital to a good manufacturing sector of the economy.”

      I think the distinction between “vocational/technical” colleges and universities really comes to the student body, and the motivations and interests thereof. I am even sure “voc-tech” challenges the thought process of students, as it is geared to have a pre-determined result at the end – performing a task, such as nursing, hair cuttery, welding, maybe a “trade”, where the problem solving is more putting things back together the way they were or the way they are supposed to be… it is difficult to pin point, and I admit my half-baked comment isn’t doing it, but there are important differences.

  25. I’m bothered by the thought of greater U.S. federal grants just being followed by Unis and community colleges raising their tuition, leading to more profit for them and no net benefit to the students.

    I’m in favor of the government ensuring college is affordable to those who want it and get in on merit. But I’m not sure just adding more grant money or paying back student loans is in the public’s best interest. I’d like to see some sort of cost-sharing or tuition limit deal involved, where the federal government agrees to cover some portion of the cost as long as the school agrees that the remainder charged to the student won’t rise above a certain amount (per credit hour, I suppose).

  26. One might still graduate university in a state of ignorance and delusion. However, such an individual should have the capacity to recognize and correct for those shortcomings, as new challenges materialize. You can’t put that in a box and sell it on a shelf.

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