The True Cost of Education

Over the past few months, I have been increasingly frustrated by the rhetoric in the press and government debate around science in the context of climate change and natural resource scarcity. It comes from all sides and even, insidiously, from “supporters”.  The National debate, on this and other topics, has been reduced to slinging sound bites of rhetoric from all sides.  Our citizens do not critically assess their points of view or the data being shared on the national stage.

Therefore, I was pleased to hear the announcement of the “Free Community College” plan from President Obama during the State of the Union.  I understand the long, difficult political road a federally funded education plan is on.  At the elementary and secondary level, 87% of education funding comes from non-Federal sources.[1] There is precedent for the Community College program in Tennessee but it is funded at the State level and the funds are a gap filler, after Pell and other grants, for students carrying a 2.0 GPA or higher and who do community service.[2]

The GOP is opposed to any additional federal spending on general principles.  In the Libertarian response to the State of the Union, Arvin Vohra, vice chair of the National Libertarian Committee, states that making community college free to all would cheapen the market value of such an education and “without subsidies and costly mandates, competition will force colleges to decrease their tuition or go out of business…Massive student debt would be a thing of the past.”[3]

I don’t have such a simplistic belief in the power of the market.  The dynamics of technology advance make Associate Degrees in technical fields even more important to increase the home grown talent for corporations and small businesses alike.   In fact, a scarcity of technical trained workers will drive corporations to sponsor education for their employees and put small businesses at a competitive disadvantage.  The unintended consequence is a market for skilled workers which does not operate under the conditions of perfect competition required for a truly “free” market.

There is historical precedent back to Thomas Jefferson – the Libertarian Founding Father – for federal funding of education.  In Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, and in Ordinances predating the Constitution, educating the citizenry was seen as the responsibility of the federal government to “promote the general welfare” and to have voters that can make adequate assessments at elections.[4]

There are more powerful reasons to make community college education available to all.  For many, pursuing 4 years of college is a financial fantasy.  I was one of those students: bright, motivated to work, but not willing to go into massive debt that would follow me even after I entered the workforce.   A technical Associate Degree provided me with highly skilled employment at low cost and my employer subsidized the remainder of my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering.   A larger financial consideration is the high attrition rate of college freshman who enter a program they are unsure of and waste time and money to learn they don’t want to be there; a debt with little to no ROI or employment as a means to pay it off.

Dogma from the economic right is predicated on removing government funding that interferes with the market so that the natural economic forces can do the job of stabilizing our democracy.  However the crises facing our society – food and energy supply, waste management, water availability, lack of jobs at a living wage – also interfere with a truly free market and are at a stage where intervention from government and businesses are necessary for solutions.

[1] From the U.S. Dept of Education website

[2] http://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-state-responses-community-college-plan-obama.html

[3] From the Libertarian Response to Obama’s SOTU Address January 20, 2015

[4] See A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge (1779) and the League of Women Voters website “The History Of Federal Government In Public Education”

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