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Got Choices?

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Higher Education

Currently in the United States, attendance in school is mandatory for children ranging in ages from about 6 to 18. These ages vary slightly from one state to another. But whatever schooling is required, it is also funded by state government.

Students wanting to go further with college or technical training may have to find a way to pay their own tuition. However most states, and indeed the federal government, have programs for subsidizing higher education in a variety of ways. At the state level, this has included the establishment of state colleges and universities that receive significant amounts of public funding and typically offer reduced tuition rates to state residents. At the federal level, it may involve grants, as well as access to loans to pay for tuition and other associated expenses.

It seems reasonable to assume, if a basic education for everyone is good for society, then more education must be even better. If it is important to publicly fund grades K through 12, then why shouldn’t we publicly fund higher education as well? Maybe we should.

But as we make this decision, we should also consider what natural feedback systems may already be in place. We should also remember, any concentration of money and power is going to attract a number of parasites. Big politics and big business can always be expected to clamor for whatever public money is available. And they will not always have the best interests of our students in mind.

However we decide, we should emphasize the right and responsibility of individuals to choose their direction and to provide for their own income and maintenance. Hopefully we can support parents and recognize their right to raise their children according to their own beliefs and values. Above all, we should recognize the right of students to seek learning and pursue happiness according to their own hopes and desires.

One natural observation about higher education is similar to the justification for public funding of primary education. We find a strong correlation between education and success in many social organizations. If people are poorly educated, their chances are much higher of ending up reliant on public assistance, or even in prison. Likewise, if someone is financially more successful, there is a good chance he finished high school and may well have obtained a college degree.

These statistics lead to some interesting questions: If every single person in a society graduated from high school and obtained a college degree, then would we all have successful, high paying jobs? And would no one ever be poor or unsuccessful?

This example illustrates the point: Although a college education is correlated with success in society, it is not a guarantee of that success. Simply because education and success are correlated, does not mean their relationship is necessarily causal. In other words, we might assume more education causes people to be more successful. But it might also just be, successful people are more likely to seek out and complete an education.

Regardless of how much schooling people may complete, some are bound to make bad choices and others are just going to end up in less productive jobs. You might say, life is graded “on the curve.” No matter how much education we establish as the mandatory, minimum requirement, people will still vary in their individual intelligence, abilities and effectiveness. If we plot human productivity on a graph, it is likely to look like a bell curve, no matter what educational programs we put in place. Roughly half of the people will be above the average and half will be below it. Those who are above average will typically be able to find higher paying jobs. And the rest may have to settle for something less.

To some degree, we see this phenomenon currently in the United States. Some decades ago, public policy began to shift to strongly encourage as many young people as possible to graduate from college. Government policies made it easier to obtain student loans. Other kinds of public aid such as grants and scholarships also became more available. Since that time, college enrollment has increased steadily.

More and more, we now consider a college education to be just as basic and essential as a high school education might have been considered 50 years ago. But we should ask: has this improved human happiness and contentment? Or have we just normalized around a new average? Said another way, is it possible a college education has just come to mean less than it used to?

There are several natural feedback systems in play here, some of which include the basic law of supply and demand which we know so well from economics. As more and more people enter the job market with a college education, the value of that education, in relative terms, will be reduced. Employers are in need of people who have good skills and training so they can be productive in their jobs and responsibilities. They will always try to hire the best applicants possible. If there are more applicants than there are jobs, companies will simply raise the bar, effectively requiring additional education or experience beyond the college degree.

In today’s job market, we see some graduates coming out of college with previously unimaginable student debt, and few good prospects for employment capable of paying off that debt. This is not only due to the relative devaluation of the college diploma, but other feedback factors as well. As more and more students have sought a college education, the supply of paying customers for colleges has risen. In relative terms, this has shifted the dynamic between customers and providers in a way that has caused the price of a college education to rise dramatically. In an environment where the college diploma is now deemed to be a necessity, if parents and government are willing to pay the bill, we can expect the business of education to raise their prices as much as possible until a new equilibrium is reached.

Today, big education is big business. For some reason we don’t always think of it that way. It is easy to think of oil companies or banks as big, heartless businesses. But big education is in it for the money too, just like any other business. If people are willing to pay more, schools will raise prices as much as they can. It is only when normal negative feedback processes are allowed to function freely that prices will begin to normalize back to sustainable market levels.

Unfortunately, in spite of the soaring price tag, a college education does not always prepare students adequately for even their first entry level job. More often than not, employers have to send new employees to outside training, or conduct expensive in-house programs to train graduates to function at needed productivity levels. Government tacitly acknowledges the same problem by introducing one redundant job training program after another. But many of these programs do not address the basic problem.

Jobs are like any other scarce resource. There are not always enough to provide everything everyone wants. Where companies become successful, they will grow and more jobs will become available. As they do, they will hire the best people they can find for those jobs. So if you want to work for someone else, you may need to work hard to become the best choice for your future employer. Thankfully, in a free economy, not everyone has to just go through a job training program, whether college or otherwise, just to spend a career working for a company somewhere for 40 hours a week.

A job is just something we do to earn money so we can pay for the food, clothing, shelter and entertainment that make us comfortable and happy. There are a variety of ways we can provide for ourselves. Sometimes people forget that they can make their own job. They don’t always have to work for someone else.

Someone might rent or purchase land somewhere and grow food for his basic needs. If he works hard, he might produce enough extra to trade for other things he will need to survive. We can all look around and think of something others need that we can learn to provide. That is how we make ourselves valuable in a free economy.

One might learn how to make jewelry or paintings, or music. Another might create a new invention to help people live more productive and happy lives themselves. Someone might start a landscaping business or build a home and sell it.

If we use our imagination, and are willing to work hard, we can obtain resources, engage in voluntary trade with other people, and then add in our own labors and intelligence. We can trade the resulting product for the value and energy we need to sustain ourselves and our families.

This happens every day. Many people do it successfully without a college degree. And you can do it too!

How many of these principles can you agree with:

  • I recognize it takes work to produce the things I need to sustain my life.
  • I own myself, but I am not automatically entitled to anyone else’s labors.
  • I am responsible to provide for myself and my family.
  • I prefer to choose what kind of work I will do to sustain myself during my life.
  • This might involve a job working for a business owned by someone else, or I might decide to create my own job.
  • Having completed compulsory education, I should consider whether further education is something I want and value.
  • If I pursue college, I should do it because I value the learning I hope to obtain–not because I think a diploma will somehow entitle me to employment later on.
  • If I know what I want to do for a living, I may want to seek technical training in the specific field I hope to work in.
  • Or, I may be able to just get a job with an employer who is willing to train me in my field of interest.
  • What I learn in school does not have to define what I am or what I will do for the rest of my life.
  • If I find myself in a career I do not enjoy, I can always change course later on.
  • There is no reason I can not seek higher education later, once I determine it is needed to pursue my desired path.

The economic bubble surrounding the price of a college education has formed simply because the natural regulating forces of economics have been artificially impaired. The system cannot correct itself until consumers begin to perform their proper function in the process.

Once consumers stop paying for college degrees in worthless subjects, schools will stop offering those subjects. When families refuse to pay tuitions that are outrageous, those tuitions will drop back to affordable levels. Students can drive the reforms by focusing more on living happy and fulfilled lives than on drawing a salary in a corporate job somewhere. They can begin to make decisions on the basis of what is most important to their values and the quality of their lives. They can pay less attention to what politicians might want to have a “good economy” or to “compete with foreign nations.”

Picking your education and picking your vocation is just like a lot of other things in life:

  • It is all about making an informed choice.
  • Hopefully, you love the freedom to choose, and you enjoy choosing well.
  • Hopefully, you will choose a way of providing for yourself that is not a burden to other people, but will add value and quality to their lives as well as your own.
  • Hopefully, the education you obtain will prepare you to be productive enough to not only meet your own needs, but also contribute to the needs of people around you.

But first, and foremost, your education is for you and those you love and take care of. It should never be reduced to a mere check-mark or prerequisite to life as an adult. It should not be pursued to satisfy government, corporations, or politicians. You go to school to learn the wisdom of past generations. It is a sacred honor and one we can accept by our own free will, and because it is enriching and enjoyable. It is not something we have to do just so we can become a better cog in someone else’s machine.

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