Higher education has gone from being the holy grail of a prosperous economy to being a drain on our economy. Many young people graduate from college with such levels of debt that they are basing life decisions around this debt, the decision on whether or not to get married, on whether or not to have children, decisions on so many things are based around these obligations. It shouldn’t be this way. I mean look at it this way, young people are saddled with so much debt that they won’t be able to save for their children’s college education, now how sustainable is that?
So let’s take a quick and dirty look some numbers. If we consider $20,000.00 to be a fair price to pay for a bachelors degree, and a student carries four classes per semester, or 8 per school year, then that $5,000.00 per year, (for a four year degree), amounts to $625.00 per class. Now if professors are paid $75,000.00 a year and a school tacks on an additional 25% for other costs each professor has to generate income of $100,000.00 a year for the school. At $625.00 per student per semester that equals 80 students per semester, or 4 classes of 20. That all seems pretty doable and straightforward.
Now what if we are say that we want everyone who is able to get a bachelors degree? Currently there are about 18.8 million young men and women of college age, now there will always be those who can afford a top of the line education at a university which offers advanced degrees and conducts research so we can subtract them, and there will always be those who simply do not want to attend college, so we can subtract them, so let’s say that we want to educate 80% of that 18.8 million, (a figure I am just pulling out of thin air as an example), that comes to slightly over 15 million people that need to pay tuition every year, or 75.2 billion dollars a year. A lot of money, but we could come up with that if we really wanted to, we have a national income of 15 trillion dollars, net dividends alone amounts to 550 billion dollars a year, the defense department spends more than our 75.2 billion on equipment and software alone. So this can be done if we really want to.
I think a big point though is that if you want to do something like this you have to make it illegal to fund such education through debt. If you still allowed debt to influence purchasing ability then prices for these educations would just go up. The point is to make them affordable, not underwrite higher tuition costs. As a matter of fact these suppliers of education should be considered to be non-profit.
Now there is a very good point that could be made here, which is the supply demand argument. This has been made quite well by H Woody Brock as concerns health care. The argument goes like this if you increase demand, in the case of health care by offering universal coverage, but don’t increase supply, in the same case by not training more doctors, then prices have to go up. So when we talk about higher education if we increase demand by establishing a free education for everyone who wants one, but don’t build more schools, who will build the schools? Especially if tuition prices are held in check. And if no one is building them how can prices not go up?
There is a viable option for dealing with this. Get rid of the schools. Now in the above scenario if we are to pay a professor, (or perhaps instructor would be a better title), and they could get paid $75,000.00 a year, with $25,000.00 spent toward what they need to get wired so they can teach online courses, then you could have individual instructors offering classes from their homes. For those students who can’t afford a computer to take advantage of this instructors could form co-ops where they might teach out of someone’s home. They could all advertise on a exchange where they are rated for their abilities to teach, perhaps on a student review basis, they would limited to the 80 student per semester threshold, they could teach from a relatively standardized curriculum, and testing of students to make sure they are learning could be done by the government. This would both increase the supply of educators and hold down the cost of offering college level classes.
A big aim of this should be to simply create a sustainable industry no matter the outcome for those graduates. An education is a great thing, and has multiple benefits outside of earnings potential, but it also provides jobs for people. But if you want it to do this, function as a viable industry in an age were we need jobs, then the cost of it has to offer enough jobs and wages to make it self fulfilling. Right now the cost of it doesn’t do so.
This whole thing reminds me a bit of an point made in a book by David Graeber, Debt:the First 5000 Years, (and exceptional book by the way that I can’t recommend highly enough). In it he recounts the horrors that were done by the Spanish when they conquered South America. Now people like Cortez did awful things, but why did they do them? They did them because they were so deeply in debt and were looking for a way our of it. This is not to excuse the acts, lots of people who are in debt don’t enslave others, but it does point to how there is a primary act which leads to a secondary act, things do not happen in a vacuum. So why do professors need to get paid so much? Because they themselves were saddled with student debt on the road to becoming professors. They also have to maintain lifestyles in line with their professions. There is something profoundly wrong with a system that self perpetuates, and compounds, such an economically harmful structure of costs and benefits.