WASHINGTON – Last week, President Barack Obama set forth his vision for higher education in the United States, part of which is to offer two years of college education for free.
“I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” Obama said in his State of the Union address.
Right, because that vision is working out so well with the American health care system.
Even though this $60 billion plan from Obama is dead-on-arrival in the Republican-controlled Congress, it suggests Obama and many allies on the left see higher education as one of the components to improving the American economy. In 2015, most anybody with a high school diploma who wants to go to college is largely able to. It may not be Harvard, but it isn’t any less than Bishop State. And for many, it requires student loans.
Those student loans, for which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimates to be well over $1 trillion in total debt, have put a burden on the American economy. That’s where Obama sees his opening, which is to begin to put that burden on the backs of the taxpayer. And that seems to be as ill-conceived as his signature legislation, ObamaCare.
The problems with higher education are much like the problems with the American health care system. Both have costs that have increased well beyond the pace of inflation.
In health care, it goes back to World War II. During the Roosevelt administration, the War Labor Board ruled that wage and price controls did not limit benefits including health insurance, which was a way for employers to incentivize workers.
Long after those wage and price controls expired, employers continued to provide health insurance as a benefit, which drove the demand for health care up as more and more people had the benefit of insurance. With the rise in demand and no real answer for it within the health care industry, the costs continued to go up.
Another institution born out of World War II was the G.I. Bill, which provided veterans with payments for tuition and living expenses to attend a college or university. This led to a lot of people attending college who otherwise would not have. It was perceived to be a political success and that led to other government-created inventions to make a college education more obtainable, including Pell Grants and yes, student loans.
Much like the effect of the proliferation of employer-provided health insurance on health care, the cost of a college education has increased.
In 2015, the average cost for college is $9,000 per year at a public institution and more than triple that for a private college. Those costs reflect a rate of two-and-a-half times the rate of inflation going back to 1985.
One of the mistakes of ObamaCare, which is an apparent effort to appease health insurance companies by implementing a hybrid system that incorporates government into the health care industry, is it doesn’t address the structural problems of supply or demand in health care. Instead it subsidizes the demand.
That’s similar to what two free years of community college would do, which is to grow the behemoth of higher education by shouldering more demand. It might behoove the federal government to look at the curriculums of these two- and four-year institutions before implementing the idea of so-called free education.
Right now in higher education, there’s an emphasis on aspects of a classical education — culture, the arts, philosophy. Certainly they’re worthy in some areas of study. But they don’t necessarily introduce anything that would tangibly benefit the American economy.
Yet, college curriculums are loaded with these types of studies. Therefore, if you’re going to burden the American taxpayer with paying for universal college education, it should start eliminating some of the old school elements of a college education.
Basic computer skills should replace required courses that explore the study of Henry James and Charles Dickens. Instead of spending a week of lecture on the Immanuel Kant’s transcendental idealism, how about reinforcing math skills that may or may not have been taught in our glorious public primary and secondary education systems?
Once we get the foundation of higher education changed, then we can proceed with more meaningful studies in trades that would be in demand, whether it technology, construction or manufacturing. And that’s where meaningful discussion about universal higher education should begin.
Judge Smails in “Caddyshack” didn’t say, “Well, the world needs gender studies graduates, too.”
A lot of colleges have realized this and are making a transition. But it’s going to take a lot more effort to overcome the entrenched mindset at these institutions that have come to be because of the higher education bubble created by the government’s subsidization of college education.
It won’t be until then that Americans should take President Barack Obama’s proposal of free universal higher education seriously.