The Fantasies Underlying Free Tuition


It’s rare to come across an essay that one finds as thoroughly erroneous as I find RIPR’s Scott MacKay’s commentary on Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo’s free tuition plan, right from the beginning:

Maybe all you have to know about Gov. Gina Raimondo’s free tuition plan is this: Americans with no more than a high school education have now fallen so far behind in salaries that the earnings chasm has reached its widest point on record.

That means that college graduates made 56 percent more, on average, than high school graduates  in 2015, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. That’s an increase from a  51 percent difference in 1999.

That 56% is an average covering the last 40-50 years, and a key point is that the numbers fluctuate.  The advantage of higher degrees isn’t a law of the universe; bachelors’ degrees can lose their value, and that is exactly what I’d expect the notion of free tuition would do.  Subsidies and loans have made college common enough that a broader swath of employers require them as a baseline even though they don’t relate to the skills required for the jobs.  The more ubiquitous degrees are, the more lower-end jobs will require them, if only as a literacy test.

The trend is clear: People who forego [sic] higher education are digging themselves into an economic rut. Most of the well-paid jobs of the future will be held by those with technical skills or a college degree.

It’s difficult to find in data, given what’s available, but many Americans are beginning to suspect that the value proposition of college is greatly overrated and will be more so as outsourcing and automation sweep through more-intellectually-demanding industries.  Sure, a student who forgoes college out of aimlessness will likely do worse, financially, than one who can at least be bothered to graduate, but a young adult who takes up a trade will have a head start, without foreclosing the possibility of further education down the road if career decisions make it a good idea.

The reality is that the government and commentariate cannot really say what “the well-paid jobs of the future” will be, and they’re not at all well positioned to say whether any given person should pursue a particular line of work.

One of the elements  that for years has held back Rhode Island’s economy is the educational  level of workers. Rhode Island has the lowest proportion of college-degreed workers in New England, with the exception of Maine.

This is arguably caused by Rhode Island’s abysmal business and opportunity environment.  Workers with degrees are likely not only to be better positioned to find work elsewhere, but also to have a better sense of what they want to do, so they’ll be more apt to leave a state that artificially suppresses their opportnities.  Adding free college to the tax bills of every Rhode Islander will make this dynamic worse.

Anyone who thinks that someone without a skill set or a decent education can build a middle-class family lifestyle in this century is in serious denial. You may as well believe the world is flat.

Note the repeated sleight of hand.  MacKay slips in “skill set,” which can be found outside of college.  If Rhode Islanders aren’t developing skill sets, it may be because the state’s employment and licensing regulations are so stringent that it doesn’t make sense for the people who possess skills (and would profit from training others) to pass them on to new generations.  Another problem is that our government elementary and secondary schools are failing to succeed in their purpose of supplying baseline knowledge and skills.  MacKay’s a big fan of labor unions, so of course he doesn’t want to go there.

Even on intangibles unrelated to economics, MacKay’s opinion seems otherworldly.  For instance, I don’t know how anybody who’s paid attention to current events over the past couple of years could possibly believe this:

Colleges also create a better civic culture. Everyone knows we could use that in Rhode Island. There are some by-products of college training that are not easily measurable, including appreciation for art and history and an understanding of how to deal with changing economic and environmental conditions.

American universities have become padded safe spaces for shiftless kids who can’t cope with reality.  They’re petri dishes for the cultivation of mindless leftism.  The idea that running more young adults through these indoctrination mills will foster a stronger society is only not crazy to somebody who believes the measure of civic culture is the level of absorbed propaganda.

  • Rhett Hardwick

    On my first job, prior to my taking the position, the requirement had been “high school graduate”. The more common we make the Bachelor’s Degree, the less valued it will become. Supply and Demand. Part of the problem is that teh requirements for a High School Diploma have fallen so low, that a Bachelor’s might be regarded as “remedial”. Prominent among the “richest people I know” is a guy who only reached the 9th grade. There is no quantifying initiative. If the correlation was direct, why does Trump make more than a PhD?

    If we take the position that “everyone goes to college” is there not a tacit requirement that we lower the standards?

  • Rhett Hardwick

    I irregularly correspond with a woman who is “only a high school graduate”. She has self educated herself on Ancient Rome, after the fall of the Republic. I truly believe she could teach a college level course on it. But there is the problem of “credentials”.

  • Paul Kelly

    I went to college back in the early eighties using my G I Bill..Back then., if you didn’t have at least a C average you had to pay back to the feds, which made you keep your act together..Comparing back today’s entitled whiners, I’m as old as the dinosaurs.

    • Rhett Hardwick

      I remember being in divorce court in that era. I recall the judge saying a father didn’t have to pay college tuition because “Father’s don’t pay for C’s”.