So President Obama wants to make community college free. One wonders if a community college economics class is in order for him. Maybe then he would understand that labor is still a supply factor in a supply/demand chart.
I’m going to say something that is hard for many to hear, and is something that is not politically correct — college isn’t for everyone.
In a national economy, we definitely need people who do not go to college, as well as people who do. We need non-college jobs, like plumbing, garbage collecting, and general contracting, to be filled. And I’m not being too elitist — some of these jobs pay more than my degree-requiring one does. Moreover, small-business owners are the backbone of our economy, creating more wealth and jobs than most other industries combined; and most small business owners do not require a college diploma to do their jobs.
And we also need people to serve in lower-paying positions. To be sure, the cost of living is way out of control in places like L.A., New York, and San Francisco, but in many places throughout the country a minimum wage is still a living wage for young singles. We need McDonald’s positions to be open to people who’ve simply graduated high school (or maybe some who didn’t even get that far) — let alone to be available to high school students as part-time positions.
But aside from the fact that we do actually need some people to not graduate from college, our university system is in bad shape. Our higher-education system has created a generation of debt-bearing, underemployed, and American-dream eschewing people. As a millennial myself, I am very worried what the future of my job market looks like.
Let’s start with the fact that my generation owes way too much in college loan debt. In fact, take “too much” and multiply it by a thousand, and you might be getting close.
College loans are starting to be bad deals. But the reason a loan debt is so bad isn’t because colleges cost too much, but rather because people aren’t able to get the jobs they need to pay the amount they borrowed. If a person earns a degree, and cannot find a position that utilizes his learning, or one that pays him a “white-collar wage,” he may not be able to pay back the loan.
But that’s not even the debt I’m worried about. Our national debt is almost twenty-trillion dollars!
I was sitting in a waiting room recently, and I struck up a conversation with some of the older people around me. And the topic went to politics, and the national debt was brought up. Though sympathetic, the people around me basically said, “It’s not our problem.” And they’re right: this extreme debt will not be paid by the over-60 crowd, or by Obama’s generation. It will have to be paid by ours. And we can’t afford it. Even if we all gave 100% of our earnings to the government for over a year, we still wouldn’t be able to pay off this debt.
When one starts saying “college should be free,” they’re not remembering that nothing is free. It will be paid for either out of taxation or borrowing. And either way, we already can’t afford the national debt we have, especially as our college degrees get more meaningless.
And that’s the next problem we face — underemployment.
Forbes defines a person who is underemployed as “someone who has a job that does not require the degree they hold.” In other words, a person who has a bachelor’s degree working in the aforementioned McDonald’s role would be considered underemployed. In the same article, Forbes details that a “whopping 44%” of college graduates are underemployed, and that 59% of people with master’s degrees are.
According to the New York Times, in 1975 21.9% of Americans aged 21-29 had a bachelor’s degree. In 1995, that number was 24.7%, and in 2012 it was 33.5%. And PBS’ NewsHour says, “Nearly 40 percent of working-aged Americans now hold a college degree.”
With college degrees becoming more and more superfluous, they are now less valuable. If I have one office job to offer someone, and I only get one person applying with a B.A., I might give him/her priority over other applicants. But if everyone applying has a B.A., then the degree becomes more irrelevant in my decision. So, college grads are forced to either distinguish themselves in other ways, or take jobs that do not require the advanced knowledge they paid their colleges for.
So with this problem in mind, Obama’s proposal will only further destroy the American job market, and leave more and more graduates underemployed or unemployed.
Another issue with the president’s proposal is that the American Dream centers around the idea that if you work hard, and take personal responsibility for your achievement, you will attain success. The dream is based on equality of opportunity rather than actual equality.
There will always be some people with natural and financial advantages. Some people will be smarter or more creative; some people will be raised in a nicer community, or with wealthier parents. What would make people unequal for opportunity is if a university said, “We’re only accepting applicants whose parents make over 100k a year.” They do not do this. In fact, they offer need-based scholarships, grants, and loans.
I’m not saying it’s fair that one student gets to pay nothing because his parents covered his costs, and another is in tens of thousands of dollars in debt to graduate college. But their opportunity is equal, even if their outcome isn’t.
And if college meant as much as it once did, the latter’s investment would be more worthwhile. Indeed, it is worth noting that making college free hurts the lower-income person who just graduated more than the higher-income person, because the lower-income person is the person depending on making more money with their obtained degree.
My economics degree taught me to always look at the intended consequences, as well as the unintended consequences of any action. The “free community college” proposal has decent-sounding intended consequences — namely, a more educated society. But ultimately it’s a bad deal for America, because it will hurt people’s employment opportunities and cost too much.