Is free college a good idea?

C’mon people, this one should be a no-brainer, can’t you at least call upon your craven loyalty to the higher education lobby to reject the free tuition proposals from Warren and Sanders?:

Just three German universities placed in the top 100 world institutions in rankings compiled by Quacquarelli Symonds, a British education consultancy…

In Germany, public funds covered $14,092 per student in 2015, the latest year for which the OECD has compiled numbers. In the United States, public funds covered $10,563 per student. But once private money was taken into account, U.S. university spending was far higher: $30,003 per student, compared with $17,036 in Germany…

“The best German universities look a lot like the University of Colorado. It’s not going to be like the top privates. It’s not even going to be like the top publics,” said Alex Usher, a Canadian education consultant who has studied how countries fund their university systems. “They’re perfectly good schools. They churn out good graduates. They’re not as focused on creating an elite. And in many ways that’s what the top systems in the United States are trying to do.”

The German system is entirely defensible if you believe that higher education is largely a matter of wasteful signaling; that is not my view, but believe it or not I know a few people who hold it.

The simple reality is that when it comes to higher education policy, President Trump is much better than the Democratic Party thought leaders.


Here is the full WaPo article by Michael Birnbaum.


You don't have to believe that it's "largely" wasteful signalling to believe the german model is better though, right? What amount of belief in the signalling theory pushes you to prefer the german model at the margin? and what evidence to we have to believe in the rankings?

"and what evidence to we have to believe in the rankings?"

The clearest evidence is the large number of foreign students clamoring to pay full price to attend an American University. China has sent large numbers of students to American universities for decades and paid a lot of money to do so. It's not because their enamored with the US.

dude used "their"


Free college is a great idea. But that is not what the socialist democrats are proposing. They are proposing that we have taxpayer funded college, something very different from free college and also a very bad idea. I am for free college where the professors work for free and the college offers their facilities for free.

If a professor works for free, where is that person supposed to get money to live?

Take a trip around Europe and see the masses of Chinese lined up in front of Gucci or Prada stores. See the Chinese in Porto with their bags full of brand-name Port.
The Chinese are all about brands and status signaling. Of Course they want to come and pay full-price to go to the high status US schools. It's all signaling and brand names.

"The clearest evidence is the large number of foreign students clamoring to pay full price to attend an American University."

Are we talking about expensive signalling (either for connections or class), or are we talking about acquiring skills?

Those rankings are highly dubious.

I assume that harvard, MIT, Stanford, etc. are considered top notch because of the research, not the teaching. I didn't go to an IVY but from what I hear, the teaching is nothing to brag about. The hot shots are pretty absent and most of the teaching is done by TA's and adjunct.

It is true that the elite institutions churn out thought leaders of tomorrow, but I don't think that they are creating them. What is probably going on is the most able and talented want to go to an IVY and the impact of the school is not as significant as we think.

Well, signaling is the main function of education. So Harvard does its job very well: maximum return for minimum effort.

If you measure education by amount being "learned" then South Korea has the best education system in the world with their kids memorizing textbooks 12 hours a day.

"They’re perfectly good schools. They churn out good graduates. They’re not as focused on creating an elite."

Uh, you're acting like this outcome is somehow against the aims of Warren and Sanders; and there is also little evidence for the efficacy of "top systems."

In other words, there seems to be a trade off and, very un-economist like, you are ignoring those tradeoffs by assuming that one outcome is strictly superior.

Similar thought. I read this post as "what you think about free college could depend on what you think of the think elite American colleges produce."

And in that light, I'd like to hear more about why Cowen thinks that elite is on balance preferable, given that it increasingly supports people like...Sanders and Warren.

Agreed. I don't see any real benefit in creating an elite class. Or at least it's not immediately preferable. Perhaps opinions may differ if you already belong to that class.

Wasn't freely available high quality and meritocratic education one of the explicit aims of the Californian dream back in the 50s? Is that such a terrible idea?

Yeah f* u too, Tyler. Instead of being so glib, why don’t you make your case from first principles instead of reasoning by analogy ? I’ll tell you why. There isn’t a case against free public tuition. As a higher ed stooge, of course you would like to think yourself to be valuable though. So I’ll cut you some slack.

The case against free education is simple: The lower the cost, the more is wasted, and were already wasting much of it.

Jim, I think what you miss is that in these countries you must qualify for "free" education. In other words, you have to take qualifying tests to get the benefit and get in. Second, free education consists of more than just "college"; it includes technical training and apprentice programs as well.

If you want just bodies, China has a lot to offer, so you need to differentiate yourself in order to compete, while you can, because even China is improving its higher ed system.

Quals in this country? No way. No Democrat is going to offer free education and then require qualifications that prevent h/her constituents from accessing it! Democrats already believe education (or teaching) quality is so mysterious that you can't even make a test to measure it.

There's nothing a Democrat hates more than a competence requirement. Hilarious. Here in WA the Dems just eliminated the exam for HS grad because not enough people were passing it.

If you're going to invest more in public education that investment should be at the primary level. Investing more in the top end doesn't make much sense when there are so many who can't even get there.

Is there a shortage of technically trained employees such that more public education...i.e., more than currently available via community required? If there is a shortage, why wouldn't employers provide training

First principles are strongly against "free" college education (unless you are socialist dolt).

Or live in a socialist hell hole like Germany, where car companies like Porsche and Mercedes are mere shadows of their past glorious selves. And where the world's largest business software company is located, not that anyone ever seems to mention that in the endless recent 'tech' discussions.

"world's largest business software company is located"

The world's largest business software company is headquartered in Redmond, Washington.

The second largest is headquartered in Armonk, NY and the third largest is in Redwood City, CA.

Nope, though SAP and its vision of standardized ERP was based on the work of 5 German former IBM employees.

You are familiar with the term ERP, right? Because a word processor or a spreadsheet has never been considered business software by the companies that make up things like the DJIA.

But full credit - at least you did not attempt to argue that Porsche or Mercedes are nothing compared to those American companies based in Detroit.

How far does one have to move the goalposts for SAP to be #1? I think I understand though, you mean "world's largest ERP software provider", how cute.

Mercedes and Porsche are German companies and Germany has subsidized tuition at its universities, therefore the US should subsidize tuition, also. Brilliant, c_p. That seems like exactly the kind of moronic reasoning that could get somebody fired from their university job.

Though the comment to M got eaten (for whatever reason), I am not advocating any policy at all - to use a German expression 'es ist mir egal' expresses my perspective on American policy, particularly when said by a Democrat or Republican, as the represent parties I have never, and will never, vote for.

It is bizarre to see how simply describing how things are in Germany is considered advocating for whatever politics may or may not be in fashion in the U.S.

Free college in the U.S., only private college, only public universities, whatever mixture and payment models - to repeat that German expression with a bit more directness, 'es ist mir scheiss egal.'

Oh, so you're just bloviating for no reason, then. Par for the course.

As noted by several non-Americans, there are no 'First principles ... strongly against "free" college education.'

What the U.S. does in this area is of utter indifference to me, and why someone pointing out (see below) how different the free German system(s) is from the American one at several levels needs to care about whatever American politicians or pundits are saying is fascinating to see in action.

This whole American debate - just like about American health care - is entertaining, because it has zero to do with where I live now.

Yeah, I bet.

What, you don't find these American policy discussions hilarious?

It is like mocking American democratic socialists and their seemingly mirror image opponents, where neither side seems to have the least clue what social democracy is, or why it is pretty much the dominant model throughout Europe, even if the Social Democrats as a party are generally shrinking (mainly because of the growth of various Green parties).

You are unable to bullshit as well as you seem to think, is what I was getting at. Call it a failure of self-awareness.

"You are familiar with the term ERP, right? Because a word processor or a spreadsheet has never been considered business software by the companies that make up things like the DJIA."

LOL, I routinely work on ERP software. And your second statement is just beyond moronic. Both word processors and spreadsheets are core business software and every major corporation considers them as such. Have you been inside an actual business in the last 30 years?

Furthermore, even if you ignore MS Office sales (which are larger than SAP) and just look at MS Intelligent Cloud sales (they are still larger than SAP).

'The world's largest business software company is headquartered in Redmond, Washington.'

Nope, though it is true that Microsoft did buy out a Danish ERP company to compete with SAP.

It's really charming that you resort to your typical behavior. As always, you post a crap link that is irrelevant to the actual argument.

Microsoft's Enterprise Business division alone has larger revenue than SAP's entire revenue.

You get used to it after a while, trust me.

By revenue in USD:
Providing a market place makes a company a business software vendor. The fact that SAP doesn't have a front end is their own mistake.

I'm a real sucker for punishment. I come on this blog just to get my pants pulled down and spanked.

The argument against free university education is simple: those who go to university are predominantly from well-off backgrounds, and subsidising their activities increases inequality.

The question of whether we should subsidise public education more broadly - e.g. pre-schoolers - is somewhat more nuanced.

That itself is not a good argument because you would probably couple the free education with tax increases weighted towards upper incomes. They get free education but they pay more taxes.

My preferred policy is the total abolition of universities and colleges. I want both Harvard and Hillsdale Community College bombed to rubble.

“Probably couple” is not very a very compelling claim.

“Probably couple” is not very compelling.

??? It's not a claim, it's how the policy would be implemented as it's being proposed. You can say that in the end it wouldn't happen and they would just implement free college without a tax increase but the idea would be you pay for these things by raising income taxes which fall more on higher-income earners.

"as it's being proposed" -> i.e. yes, it's a claim. In any case, there is no meaningful sense in which the taxing and spend are linked: once you've taxed rich people, you can do whatever you want with the money. Why would you spend it on subsidising the well-off, thereby nullifying any inequality-reducing effect of the original tax? Why not spend it on the poor, double the inequality-reduction effect?

I think it's obvious that the free tuition program will require that participating schools select their students randomly i.e., like we currently do to allocate charter school slots. Anything else will be completely untenable, equity wise.

If the taxpayer is paying, we should grapple with the question of how much the schools should spend, how many should go and what should be taught. I would think opinions would vary greatly on those 2 questions.

Tyler is probably worried about the "medicare-ization" of education. Free tuition --> price caps next budget cycle.

Why not just rename high school to college and rename the HS diploma to BA or BS? That way, everyone will have a college education, and we won't need to spend any more taxpayer dollars.

I don't understand Tyler's point about the German system and signalling. If one believed that higher education was mostly signalling, then one would not spend any taxpayer money on it. Sending everyone to college would just weaken the signal causing the creation of another signal (grad school, other certification, etc.) Nothing would change, except a lot of resources would be wasted. Better to just rename high school to college and save the money.

Btw, can't almost anyone afford college through the GI Bill? What is the rationale for awarding any welfare benefits to someone that wouldn't have needed those benefits had they just enlisted in the military?

Most are too fat and unfit to qualify.

Were you agreeing or disagreeing with that comment?

The people to whom this welfare program is targeted - dual income urban professional families - don't want their kids in the military.

The sort of question never covered by such articles or commentary is just what sort of 'higher' education systems does Germany have? There are universities, which more or less correspond to American universities, though Germany has considerably fewer such institutions that the U.S.. Then there are Fachhochscule, with more focus on educating the sort of people that the U.S. apparently is unaware of, as a Fachhochschule is considerably more stringent than a typical community college. Then there is Duales Studium schools, where students work in a company for 3 months (where they receive a salary for the time worked, health insured, and receive paid vacation time) and study in a classroom for 3 months.

Each type of school have a different level of prestige (obviously), yet in real terms, the people with university degrees are less likely to fill many of the well paying slots than those with a degree from a Fachhochschule or from a Duales Studium institution. (At least using the past as a guide - who knows how things will look in a couple of decades.)

Then there are the schools intended to educate Meister - that is, the people who earn a Meisterbrief. They too have to go to school (such as learning about basic business accounting), pass tests, and have proven that they have mastered their trade. This is not considered 'higher' education here, yet an electrician with a Meisterbrief is considered more valuable (that is, better paid) in most contexts than someone with an electrical engineering degree.

As already noted by Will quoting the article, the German system is not oriented to the Ivy or Oxbridge or Grandes écoles models of creating an elite. It is however, dedicated to creating an educated labor force, in apparent contradiction to what elites typically consider desirable.

"[The German system] is however, dedicated to creating an educated labor force, in apparent contradiction to what elites typically consider desirable."

Well, that used to be the case. But the signaling of wasteful signaling is strong.

The German educational system includes free universities, but one foundational cornerstone of that was that only the very few got access to that. To put it in numbers: It's target was to put 5% of German school graduates into higher-ed and the rest into trade-school.

The Fachhochschule (FH) were added as a compromise later-on. More higher-ed for the people, but with more applicability in the private-sector. Hence the english name of most FHs goes like "universtiy of applied sciences"

But even the addition of FH never had in mind, that now more than 55% of German school graduates go to university. That high number is due to the power of signaling. And the results took and keep on to take a toll on all other branches of our ed-system you've just mentioned.

It's weird, but it seems like countries with an ivy-league approach have much more love for our system than we do.

What makes you think that the academic rankings so beloved by university administrators does in any meaningful way capture the value added to society?

Well, GMU (particularly certain parts of it) has been on a generation long quest to gain as much academic respectability as possible. And Prof. Cowen has been intimately involved with that process since his undergraduate days, meaning it is no surprise that he would view things through such a lens.

Call it being involved in a moonshot, while building the bridges between university research and implemented public policy.

I would say the presence of these elite universities in the US is a net negative on society because they exist to create an aristocracy. A tiny sliver of the population actually gets a chance to attend them and those who didn't make the cut are basically doomed - all top jobs are monopolized by people with the correct degree to signal their belonging in the club.

I understand that eliminating places like that would be bad for the Tyler Cowen's of the world but I think it would benefit the vast majority of Americans.

I am all for aristocracy if the aristocrats do their job. But it's a role that should be viewed as a sacred trust with a strong duty to the public and the greater good. The American “elites” are selfish and detestable, more oligarchic than aristocratic. They deserve the gallows.

I'm really confused by this post. Who are the people Tyler refers to that are connected to higher education lobbies? "Craven loyalties" comes across as strong wording. Tyler mentioned what his view is not but it isn't clear what his view is.

"Who are the people Tyler refers to that are connected to higher education lobbies?"

His fellow neo-aristocrats who need to guard their privileges.

Are US graduates smarter than German graduates? Doubt it, except so far as they attract smart foreign students.

Are US graduates more likely to be a wee bit arrogant and self entitled? Anecdotal, but yes - may generalise to non graduates too

Is it good for society to have an elite based on where you went to uni?

How much of the difference is spent on fancy buildings, accomodation and higher pay for professors?

How much of the difference is spent on better research?

Good questions, except for 'Are US graduates more likely to be a wee bit arrogant and self entitled?' Not quite too sure about this one. Maybe it's just how much the Germans like their titles - "Dr. Dr. XXX"

Quoting the rankings as evidence that the German universities are 'not as good' is quite ignorant, and I'd expect better from Tyler. Spending per student is one of the inputs into these rankings! German universities have difficulties attracting strong publishing academics because it's a non-English speaking country, because salaries are lower, and because tenure is more difficult to acquire. Having said that, the quality of an academics publications (another key input into the rankings) has a pretty low (if at all) correlation with their ability to teach.

Speaking as someone who has experienced both the UK (which has a similar funding system to the US albeit slightly less extreme) and German university systems, your contention that more funding => better education is just wrong. German universities are some of the most underrated in the world, and the ability to obtain an education without being burdened by debt cannot be understated

The ranking thing is irrelevant - statistically speaking like NO ONE gets into Harvard or Yale. To the vast majority of people in the US there is no benefit from having those schools and frankly ONLY harm because the top jobs get monopolized by people who are from the right country club, and because which school you attended is like a brand on you for the rest of your life not getting into an elite school in the US absolutely dooms you. In Germany at least people don't have to worry about this.
So free college is bad for people like Tyler - BOO HOO!

Free services funded by the entire population with restricted access dependent on ability, are clearly inequitable.

As in the UK under the system of grants prior to 1999, without even considering the German model (which I believe has has additional variances and differences in focus to serve their coordinated market economy).

And that's in my view all you need to say to dismiss free college.

STEM and professions grads don't need subsidising (and it's progressive to inequality for them to fund their own educations). Most humanities and liberal arts grads where the return to higher end is dubious probably shouldn't really exist on so much of a mass scale.

Certainly the rise of large class of college education has resulted in an accumulated class of educated idiots who are no smarter but have bigoted views about the less educated, a strong degree of entitlement, and cynically anti-national beliefs. Where this does not create value (through STEM and the professions) it seems better to have less of this than more.

'Free services funded by the entire population with restricted access dependent on ability, are clearly inequitable. '

Most Germans disagree with you.

'And that's in my view all you need to say to dismiss free college. '

Most Germans disagree with you.

'Certainly the rise of large class of college education has resulted in an accumulated class of educated idiots who are no smarter but have bigoted views about the less educated, a strong degree of entitlement, and cynically anti-national beliefs.'

Most Germans would still disagree with you.

1. Germany tertiary educational attainment in bracket 25-44% - - 28% against United States 44%.

Not as large a class in Germany.

2. Germany has among the lowest educational and income mobility in the OECD -

The United States among the highest. Germany also has lower mobility of occupation than the United States.

3. German pre-tax variance in market income before taxes and transfers is equal to the United States -

Conclusion: If you replicate all the features of the German system, without replicating their willingness to pay higher tax, you will replicate a society that where status is more stratified by family background than the United States and with a lower proportion of university educated individuals (for better and worse).... but which is just as unequal as the United States.

"Free" (aka state funded, and limited) college would be replicating the worst features of the German system (from a "progressive" point of view), not its best, which is almost entirely its population's relatively healthy habits (albeit rather unhealthy compared to Italy, Spain, France, Sweden) and willingness to pay higher tax.

"The United States among the highest. Germany also has lower mobility of occupation than the United States."
This probably has a lot to do not with the Germany university education model but with its early education model (primary school) which tries to shunt people early on onto predestine pathways.

The German education system isn't so good but Tyler makes himself look like a caricature of himself with his line of argumentation.

Yes, I expect it's going on all the way through the education and employment system since young children; Germany has a rather ordered, hierarchical society and long has been. Free college probably doesn't help though, as I expect it tends to restrict supply of education, more than it expands opportunity.

German wealth inequality relatively high too among OECD - Top 1% and Top 10% slightly but saliently high for Europe.

The German middle class is willing to bear a somewhat higher burden of tax, but no chance that free college would make the US middle class more willing to - social divergences and factors that lead to that far deeper than anything that would be changed by free college (US "Horatio Algerism", kvetching about 'welfare queens', "temporarily embarassed millionaire"dom changed much by free college? no way).

Who gives a eff what priggish, authoritarian Germans think? The German model is for Germans, not free-wheeling Anglo-Celts, African-Americans, and Hispanics.

Germany has a higher average IQ than the US.

It's been established that higher education does not increase IQ. So there's no benefit in terms of higher IQ. Moreover, the information that's imparted via higher education is for most students not very useful, interesting, meaningful, or truthful, and in many cases it's actually harmful. And most of the information can be obtained for free or very cheaply online or through used textbooks.

So, you are saying, in the year 2169 your great-great-great grandchild will receive his 'information', that is, his higher education, from his/her great-great-great grandfather's used textbooks. Sounds like a great, great, great idea!!

As Milton Friedman said there's no free lunch and no free college either. Someone is paying but who is benefiting? The students, maybe, but not so much if all they have to show for it is a useless diploma and the ability to spout academic gibberish. The professors? Probably. How many would have jobs if students had to pay their own way? The administrators? I would guess so. Everyone else on salaries or getting paychecks? Publishers of over-priced journals? Local business community catering to students? Probably. People who don't have to compete for their jobs with the students who might be looking for work if they weren't students? **
Not saying there isn't value for students. But they aren't the only recipients nor is it entirely free even for them. Presumably, some percentage of them will be paying for someone's else's education later on.

Society benefits, but only if the teachings are not nonsense, such as in gender studies, climate denial, anti-vaxxing or macroeconomics. So it makes sense to subsidize education as a public good, but only for a few societally beneficial majors such as STEM or business.

Until (literally) Hitler, the German university system was universally recognised to be the world's best. And that was true even when it didn't include the world's best individual university (which was for many decades Cambridge).

Since then the only plausible case I've seen made for World's Best was for California, and that was some time ago. Maybe people of taste and discrimination are reluctant to pin the label "best" on any university system given how corrupted the whole shemozzle has become.

If you hand out degrees in Grievance Studies you must expect people to fart in your general direction.

After studying in Texas and Switzerland, and visiting other universities in California, France and Germany, meine zwöi Rappen...

Universities in Europe are schools while in the US they are country clubs that also provide education. The footprint of US universities comprises free parking, athletic facilities, a university police department, etc. The green areas around buildings in Germany look overgrown, who cares? Can you imagine campus police in France? Universities in Switzerland are merged into the city, one building next to the hospital, other faculty among apartments buildings. Want to swim? There's the municipal pool, lake or river. Wanna lift? There are lots of private gyms. University housing, roommates? This is not North Korea. Free parking? That's for communists.

In general, Universities in Europe seem to operate under the "lean manufacturing" idea. Focusing on what adds value like education & research while getting rid of everything else.

The operation and maintenance costs of large campuses in the US are significant. Higher spending per student, does not mean the resources are spent on the students, it may just go to the new pool filter system.

Jesus Christ super weak argument Tyler. I'm not even a big fan of free college because I DO see it all as wasteful signalling but your argument against free college is "Germany doesn't have Harvard and Princeton! If you people want Harvard and Princeton (which you have almost no chance of actually getting to attend yourself) you shouldn't want free college"? Tyler is looking more and more buffoonish every day.

Education IS signaling by the way and almost nothing else. All the US system does is let people with more money pay for a better signal.

Could someone in this comment space explain how this relates to Trump?

He doesn't want to vote for Trump. But if the Dems push for Sanders or Warren or anyone who pushes for free tuition then he would be forced to vote for him.

For my part, I am encouraging Democrats to be as Democrat as possible.

Busing, amnesty, reparations, free everything. Full steam ahead.


Both your "Great Forgetting" posts have been trash. Also wasn't tuition at US schools significantly lower in real-terms in the past? Did this turn out badly? Another FAIL for Tyler.

I'm not that much in favour of free college, by the way, but Tyler's doofus arguments can convince me otherwise. The bad thing about free college in Germany is not that they don't have their own Ivy League, but that free tuition leads to more credential inflation because everyone hangs around to get a masters and even a PhD because its all free.

What Cowen means is that if higher education is "free", the elite colleges must be "free" too; otherwise, we would have a two-tiered system, one for the wealthy and one for the not wealthy, and the promise of a "free" education would be a false promise. So we end up with one system that would conform to a CU (the Univ. of Colorado): no elites, just lots of good but not elite schools. And we end up with price controls: how else can higher education be "free" if the cost is always escalating. And not only price controls, but constant meddling from state and local governments.

Here's a real-world example of what happens when politicians meddle in a college's affairs. There is a nominally public university in an eastern state whose undergraduate college ranks high but not quite up there in the elite category. It's graduate and professional schools, however, are ranked with the elite. Why the difference? Meddling. Even though the undergraduate college receives only a small percentage of total funding from the state, the state dictates what percentage of the students must be residents of the state. Why would the state do that? To please the parents (i.e., the voters in the state). What that means is that, to reach the mandated level of residents, the university accepts in-state students with lower academic records than many out-of-state applicants who are rejected in order to satisfy the mandate. What about the graduate and professional schools, why do they rank higher? Because they are self-funded and get no funding from the state; thus, they make their own criteria for admission and attract and admit applicants with higher academic records (as compared to the undergraduate college). If higher education is "free", will elite colleges be able to opt out and set their own admissions criteria in order to maintain their elite status, or will meddling force them to lower their admissions criteria in order to make the promise of a "free" higher education more than a false promise?

University spending in the US is a mysterious event. I work for an a Federal agency in Boston where Harvard wanted to hire an accomplished professor. The professor didn't come to Harvard. But as part of the package the University offered to pay his spouse's salary if my office would house her professionally. At first I thought this was very cool. Almost like a donation for public good. Then I wondered how flexible or common these type of offers are. Endownments are so large that my example may be insignificant. And Endowents should do want they want with their money. Still, when endowments are that large there shouldn't be a need for federal grants or increased tuition.

Will the elites be able to opt out since the elites are self-funded (with tuition and large foundations)? See my comment above. I think what Cowen is suggesting with his blog post is that the elites will not be able to opt out.

I 100% believe that everyone should be able to attend college for free. I even have a plan for doing it at zero cost to the taxpayers! All we need to do is go back to the older model of university. No, older than that. Nope, even older. We're going back to the model that created the first universities: the monastery.

See, in my plan, if you want to get a good and free college education, you're going to renounce your worldly possessions and enter your local monastery. Here you'll have your very own room with your very own bed, chair, desk, and (LED) candle, and nothing else, to ensure you are focused on studying. You'll live according to a strict and highly regimented schedule: meals in silence in the refectory while a lecturer reads the great philosophical and scientific works aloud, a morning of lectures and reading at the monastic library, evenings spent overlooking the cloister in silent meditation over what you have learned. Afternoons, naturally, are spent toiling in the fields or working to maintain the monastery, unless of course the laymen—excuse me, the laypersons or perhaps layotherkin—are there to provide for you out of respect for your mission.

I'm not sure why Sanders, Warren, et al. have not drawn upon the genesis of these great institutions to realize a plan that would obviously achieve their stated goal of college for all with no debate over the financial impacts. It's almost like they aren't really that concerned with finding a way for young minds to get an education as they are with setting up a system to use government funds to subsidize the most leftist institutions on the planet.

This would be an amusing attempt at a facetious metaphor were it not for the fact that many developed countries have extremely fine Universities and systems which costs students little to nothing in tuition.

The sentiment in these types of conversations seems to be "Well if the U.S. hasn't adopted this system/process it must not work!"

As opposed to "This system/process that works in a different country with a different culture and a different people would work here if we just adopted it!"

How about we take the money we would spend on free college and use it to bribe one of the leaders of these progressive beacons of tertiary education? All we ask for in exchange is a new law saying that everyone has to jump off a bridge. We could see how well-educated their people truly are, and we'd probably thin out a few people here in the process. It's a win-win proposal and I didn't even have to go to college to come up with it.

"the fact that many developed countries have extremely fine Universities and systems which costs students little to nothing in tuition."

American students can go to Community colleges (many of which offer 4 year degrees) for little to nothing in tuition.

I appreciate your modest proposal... but in all seriousness, modern 'resort campuses' make me uncomfortable, particularly at the flagship campuses of public universities. There should be a way for students to get a high quality education at a reasonable price.

Why should they make you uncomfortable? College is about the experience, brah, don't harsh it. #YOLO

In all seriousness though, it's clear that free college is our only option. How else are people going to get a good education? Are we going to store the sum total of human knowledge in electronic form and create a protocol to network computers storing this knowledge across the globe thereby allowing anyone anywhere to have access to any educational material that they desire at their convenience for no more than the cost of electricity and whatever "service provider" they have? I've been all over Instagram and let me tell you buddy that doesn't exist. It might have been on Google+ though.

> that doesn't exist.

Off topic, but you're right. The Internet has devolved into a collection of proprietary walled gardens. It's a total surprise and disappointment to me; 20 years ago, I would have bet the house on the open protocols.

It's what you make of it. They have decentralized Facebook (Diaspora), Twitter running off a blockchain (EtherTweet), and YouTube using torrents (BitChute). Any of these are just one step away from open protocols. Faceborg is big because people are lazy.

Anyway, the idea that we need to spend tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars per student simply to get an education is ludicrous, for any number of hard truths the people who parrot this drivel don't want to acknowledge:

- Not everyone can or should go to college, and a college from which any person can graduate is useless;

- Many of the programs offered by modern colleges are self-serving trash with no practical use in society or lasting impact on civilization beyond burning this one to the ground;

- Most of the traditional programs (e.g., the liberal arts) have been infected by proximity to the above to the point of being useless as well;

- Most of the people graduating with degrees from the above two are either woefully underemployed or in fields with no relation to their degree and that shouldn't require a degree in the first place;

- The people who actually do need to have a degree (e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, and other professionals) could have just as easily graduated from a specialized school for a fraction of the cost and time;

- The need to provide surrogate job screening for corporations who require degrees for menial make-work jobs could be accomplished a number of cheaper and more effective ways, assuming such a thing is desired at all;

- Anyone who yet still desires to learn for the sake of learning and not for vocational purposes (i.e., the actual purpose of a university) has access to a virtually unlimited pool of knowledge and educational material delivered to them at negligible cost via the Internet; and

- Anyone who insists on attending despite all of the above gets the exact same education whether or not they have a lazy river at the rec center or a suite in their dormitory, or for that matter, whether they attend a community college.

There is absolutely no justification for free college tuition for everyone in the face of all of these alternatives other than to subsidize college administrators and professors in their quest to indoctrinate the youth. Anyone who insists otherwise displays either a sufficient lack of critical thinking (in spite of college being the place where NPCs tell you "you learn to think critically") to render their opinion on the matter completely invalid, or massive ulterior motives that, to hide under the pretense of nobility, is frankly insulting. Follow the money.

“Believe it or not...”

I chuckled

What sort of argument is this? That private money makes a school better? Okay, but why and how can you tell other than by a system of "rankings". The German economy is diverse and successful, so it's hard to believe their system is failing them.

I wanted to add that if you go to literally the second "world rankings" survey on Google by "The World University Rankings 2019" you will see that Germany has 7 of the top 100 universities , which considering that Germany is about 1/4 of the size of the U.S. is relatively proportional. Perhaps Tyler is being selective about his data to prove a point?

Everyone should be very skeptical about an argument being made by someone who stands to lose should a counter-proposal be adopted(e.g. free higher ed). Objectivity goes right out the window.

'Perhaps Tyler is being selective about his data to prove a point?'

He is merely quoting from the now couple day old article. which uses data from a British company.

My point was that a single survey does not a compelling argument make. You can just as easily point to another survey to 'prove' that Germany's U system is doing proportionately as well as the US'.

Additionally, if you wanted to support the argument that a free U system provides worse education than a hybrid public/private system, you should provide well rounded stats on things like:

-graduation rates
-job placement rates
-economic mobility
-entrepreneurial metrics
-effect of student loan debt on investment

Instead, Tyler treats the whole premise of free higher ed as a non-starter and glibly dismisses it. I don't know if you've been to Germany, but the people there seem incredibly well educated, so they must be doing something right.

Yeah there are much better arguments to make apart from "Germany doesn't have an Ivy League" which, if anything, is probably an argument FOR free college.

For instance, I don't have statistics, but I can tell you that graduation rates at these German schools are really bad compared to US schools because they don't think twice of just failing entire classes. You know so THAT could be a valid argument - "look at Germany, free college but the professors don't give a shit if anyone actually graduates".

In the US, you pay tuition, the university actually needs to have some kind of customer service and ensure a healthy amount of people actually graduate.

Now that is an argument I would listen to, "Is the financial disincentive of dropping classes adequately promoting graduation rates compared to a free system?"

As a counter-point, I would say that US college and its financial disincentives are not "felt" by students until years down the road after they graduate, meaning that they can change majors, drop classes, or not take a full class load. This is because easy access to student loans delays the impact of those financial disincentives, which may cause students to make foolish decisions, or pursue non-viable degrees. Couple all this with the fact that teens and early 20's students are financially illiterate and the result is that students aren't being compelled to make smart decisions as a result of economic pressures, but are subject to the consequences regardless of the result.

"As a counter-point, I would say that US college and its financial disincentives are not "felt" by students until years down the road after they graduate, meaning that they can change majors, drop classes, or not take a full class load. "

I totally agree with this. Although these disincentives are there when people are that age, by-and-large, there is a strong optimism bias in the way they think. It isn't just being "financially illiterate" (part of it though), there's a certain psychology to people at that age that makes them vulnerable to making bad choices.

Tyler's argument here is shockingly bad but it just reveals his elitist world-view which is on display often enough anyway. As I said earlier, I am convinced that the existence of Harvard, etc. is a net negative to society.

Still, I am not very enamored with the German system - I never studied in Germany but I've spent enough time in Europe and I know quite a few Germans, maybe I have a distorted view but it doesn't sound good to me. I don't think I would have personally made it through, the exams are separate from the courses, seems like they really don't care if 80% of the class fails, the professor is basically an unconstrained dictator. Going to university there sounds like going to a competitive professional school in the US except its all just to earn a mediocre German salary. Arguments against free college along those lines are far more convincing to me.

'"look at Germany, free college but the professors don't give a shit if anyone actually graduates"'

Until a couple of years ago, it was much worse than that - funding was based on the class size admitted, with no connection to graduation rates. Meaning that universities would admit students with the tacit awareness that at least a quarter (roughly - I no longer have Die Zeit articles handy in terms of how this was reformed) of the first year class would be failed.

When I was at UC studying CS a professor failed all the students in his compiler class for cheating. A few students didn't deserve to be failed - they actually did the work - but cheating was rampant.

But I think in European universities high failure rates are just a matter of course. It's very sink-or-swim with no attempt by the faculty to ensure students pass classes. Also I know in Germany you enroll separate for the course and the exam so the exam might end up having little to do with what was taught in the lectures for the corresponding course. Sounds like a shitshow to me.

"The simple reality is that when it comes to higher education policy, President Trump is much better than the Democratic Party thought leaders."

Sadly, this is what has happened to all of the quietly not quite Trumpian conservatives and Republicans.

Remember all that 2016 talk about the "normalization" of Trump's worst attributes? Well, it's happened. And now those not quite Trumpian conservatives can be totally blind to all the large issues in our politics (nay, constitutional government!), and are ready to slice out hairs of agreement, for their own mental well-being, heading into what they will no doubt claim is a "normal" election.

It has nothing to do with "normalization" of Trump's worst attributes. His point is that the Democrats are outdoing each other in a downward spiral. Trump truly is the only sane one running for President right now. You can have your criticisms of him, and I may agree with a few, but the Democrats are a loathsome bunch.

> C’mon people, this one should be a no-brainer, can’t you at least call upon your craven loyalty ...

This is Tyrone's writing style, not Tyler's. The subsequent shout-out to Trump is pure trolling.

Maybe. Trump's idea after all was to *limit* college loans. Surely Tyler, a steadfast champion of payday lending, would not turn around here and support that sort of credit intervention!

I think it's also fair to remind you guys that any presidential candidate's "plan" is a slogan, and nothing more. As Mr. Trump discovered, there are actually quite a few limits to what a President can do by fiat.

What Warren and Sanders are *really* saying is "here is what I'll send to congress."

I'm not too worried that the US Congress will actually try to cancel all student debt, nor try to make college free to all comers. As they should not of course, it's a proper place to demand skin in the game. Students should pay for public higher ed, enough to prove seriousness. And too weed out millions more "did not complete."

So they are purposely running an 'attrappe nigaud' strategy to gain power. Nice that you are normalizing that kind of disgusting politics.

I know American politics are foreign to you, but it's pretty common for candidates to have "a plan." Voters are supposed to remember that electing that candidate does not enact that plan. It certainly does not guarantee a majority support for it in the Congress. The elect the leader to go ahead and then try to sell the plan.

It's different in a parliamentary system, right? There the ruling party has a plan, and if that party is granted a full majority, things are much more straightforward.

There is already a 12 year free education system. It is so good, the level of excellence is so high, the curriculum so demanding that to be a functioning adult requires another 4+ years of education at some cost.

By the way, that system is run by the same people who want to turn it from a 12 year program into a 16-18 year program.

Canada moved away from the heavily subsidized low tuition model for the simple reason that government money couldn't meet the demand for numbers and quality of education needed and demanded.

It's all signaling that is why you need the 4+ years - and now-a-days you really need a masters too. HR departments needed ways to filter resumes, managers like to have the "right-sort-of-people" on-board, academics want more academics and more students and because our society foolishly puts a lot of weight on what academics say you end up with a society that puts more-and-more emphasis on formal credentials. It's all signaling and credential inflation.

"It's all signalling" is a silly, and "magic," argument.

"Magic" because it demands we forget everything we know about the actual human capital developed in higher education: accountants learning how to work a ledger, chemists learning how to run a gas chromatograph.

Only once we forget can we believe.

That kind of stuff actually gets barely learned in university, much of it can be learned on the job. You could have some training courses for this kind of stuff, the bulk of the actual university curriculum is irrelevant to the jobs. It's not a magic argument just look at what is taught, even in the beloved STEM.

As we both should know, Human Capital Theory has been shown to work in the wild:

The mandarization of America continues, as Tyler dons his kimono and works hard to increase the status of his mandarin-producing institution.

Honestly wondering if this is a Straussian argument for burning down the US higher education system. Like, I think it's fairly agreed upon that Germany has a pretty damn good workforce. Whatever they're doing seems pretty good regardless of what "elite" ranking say (which might well just be a proxy for rent-seeking/inheritance/etc.).

Come on Tyler - I would have gladly donated to your charity of choice if you would have hat tipped Prior on this post!! Simply would have made my week better.

A mix of both wouldn't be a bad idea with a few elite Universities requiring tution and the rest offering free tution.

Malcolm Gladwell's latest “Grand Unified Theory” for fixing higher education also shines a spotlight on the notion that these elite Universities produces the best elite graduates in an effective way.

I believe the person with the sanest higher education policy so far has been Theodore Kaczynski

Just kidding of course. But abolish college is my preferred policy.

Neither system is perfect. I agree the European university model results in barebone facilities, too many students per class, relatively low pay. But the US system goes to the other extreme, it is extremely expensive due to unnecessary luxuries, this resulting in very high student debt. There should be a happy medium (perhaps what the US university system was just a few decades ago)

Maybe the Canadian system is the happy medium

Good lord, Tyler. There is a case to be made against free/subsidized higher education, but this isn't it. You've highlighted a correlational relationship between free college and college rankings, with n= 2. This ought to be miles below the standards of any academic. Do you really think that if the government were to cover tuition at GMU, it would cease to produce excellent research?

You also suggest that free, non-elite colleges would be all about social signalling. But most of that signalling is derived from the prestige of the institution, and prestige is untethered to the cost of tuition! Harvard, perhaps the most prestigious university on the planet, has generous student aid programs which results in perfectly average tuition costs for the overwhelming majority of its students.

Please do better.

@Eigengrau - you vector wrongskian...

From the Economist, 13 June 19 letters: Another reason for the lack of skilled labour in Germany is the reluctance of school-leavers to take advantage of the admirable dual-education system, and instead enroll at a university (“Opening up a crack”, May 18th). The problem is that every pupil who has passed the school-leaving exam, the Abitur, has the constitutional right to a place at university, even if he or she has to wait some semesters and has no real academic inclinations or talents. The result is a proliferation of abstruse and socially irrelevant courses, a drop-out rate of about 30% (a shocking waste of human and financial resources) and the lack of skilled workers you mentioned.

Having spent 20 years as a lecturer, I can testify to the often poor quality of students at hopelessly overcrowded public universities and the high quality of those at private institutions, which have strict admission requirements. But in our modern, democratic society everybody is at least a manager and selection is frowned upon. That attitude is leading to big problems for the German economy.

Wentorf, Germany

What's your point? Subsidized tuition costs need not lead to lax admission requirements. Again, Harvard has an admission rate of only ~5% while heavily discounting the tuition for most of its students.

The passage you cite is an argument against a constitutional right to a university placement regardless of academic inclinations or talents, not an argument against government subsidized tuition.

There are good arguments against free college out there, so I say again to Tyler and the MR commentariat: please do better.

If an industry needs new workers badly enough, they will pay for vocational education. Audi and IBM are only two of the American employers who do this today.
If a field is completely overcrowded -- i.e. college teaching in the liberal arts -- then graduate schools would empty out if federal loans were unavailable.
Liberal arts would be reserved for scholarship students and rich kids. I do not think this will be the end of the world.

Wall Street lashes out at Bernie Sanders' plan to pay off student debt with a securities trading tax ---

Jensen Comment
The problem is compounded by the fact that progressives want to spend tens of trillions more on things other than student debt forgiveness and free college in future years, including spending programs for green initiatives, free medical care, free medications, student loan forgiveness followed by free college for everybody, guaranteed annual income for 350+ USA residents, reparations for African and Native Americans, and billions for new subsidized housing on top of existing safety nets such as food stamps and welfare and housing.

Bernie Sanders also wants to make you believe banks and brokerages will be paying the $100 trillion dollars. Absolute lie! Business firms don't pay taxes. They collect taxes from customers. A tax imposed on brokerage transactions hits pension funds for teachers, firefighters, professors, trash haulers, middle class investors, and wealthy investors. Taking $100 trillion from brokerage transactions (even if it were possible) would shut down stock markets and bond markets and bankrupt pension funds.

The cost student debt forgiveness alone is nearly equal to all $1.7+ trillion Federal income tax revenue currently used to fund existing government spending ---

Vague references references are made to are made to taking the $1.6+ trillion from rich investors, but no mention is made of how the aggregated cost of this $1.6 trillion added to other new spending programs costing $100 trillion will crash the stock, bond, and real estate markets.

When combined with free college education for anybody who wants it this will make funding more difficult for $100 trillion in green initiatives, Medicare-for-All, free medications for all, free nursing homes, guaranteed annual income for 350+ million residents, reparations for black and native Americans, and so on down the 2020 socialist democratic wish list.

My guess is that Sanders would not have backed this in current legislation if it had a chance of getting the approval of the Senate and President Trump. If it passed it would greatly complicate his other spending plans, especially Medicare-for-All.

The ultimate cost of all this spending will be borne by USA pension fund holders (think CREF and CalPERS) since pension funds depend mostly upon stock, bond, and real estate markets that will crash if you take $100+ trillion from investors in any form whatsoever.

Progressive spenders never talk about how they will save USA's pension funds for teachers, municipal workers, business workers, etc.
The bottom line is that for most student borrowers the funding of the student-loan cancellation will wipe out the pension funds of their parents.

The argument against free college is simple and elegant: free education (that is, education paid through taxes) makes sense for basic education since it is progressive as the poorest families benefit from it. HIgher education is always and everywhere the education of the cognitive elite, that is, people of high type in Mirrlees' models. Therefore, tax funded college education is always regressive. By the way, the US already subsidizes a lot of college education, which is obviously regressive. Public basic education is simple application of Mirrlees taxation, there is no room for tax funded higher education.

Instead, tax funded higher education is one of the most effective mechanisms to increase inequality. Brazil, for instance, historically the world leader in inequality, has invested 1.5% of their entire GDP into public universities and the government also pays fellowships for hundreds of thousands of elite undergraduate and graduate students. As a great professor of mine said: we have implemented the Napoleonic system, where society's resources are channeled through taxes to a small elite, in order for that small elite to be well educated and furnished with the resources which allow the small elite to provide enlightened leadership for the rest of the society.

Unprofitable Education edited by Zywicki and McCluskey is still the last word on this.

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