“Free” College – Who Really Wins?

Sometimes I find cognitive dissonance very amusing. Those among my friends who “feel the Bern” on the one hand rage against the rich and powerful corporate elite who manipulate our government (or, as I would contend, are the real government, but that’s a subject for another time), yet on the other hand are so enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders because his flagship youth vote–getting program is “free” college education. And yes, I did say “free”, because college will never actually be free until the professors and janitors work for free and get free groceries, clothing, transportation, and housing (so they can afford to work for free), until construction companies build college campuses for free using materials they got for free, until utility companies deliver free power and water, and so on. Just because you don’t pay for something doesn’t mean it’s free—in fact, odds are that means it’s expensive since, not paying for it, you don’t care what it costs.1, 2

These may not seem like contradictory positions at first glance, but I would pose the question, why do you want a college education? What specifically does a college education provide you that you can’t get in other ways? Certainly no information can be learned at college that can’t be learned through independent study at a library or on the internet. Certainly no expertise from experienced professionals can be gained at college that can’t be learned through networking and mentoring with the same types of professionals. Certainly no hands-on experience can be gained at college that couldn’t be gained in a home workshop.3 There is only one thing college education provides, and that is a piece of paper stating that what knowledge and experience you have, you gained at a college.

And there’s only one reason to have that piece of paper: in order to get a job, or more specifically, a better job than you could have gotten without it. You don’t need it to start or run a business—your clients will value the quality of your product or service, not the grade you got in art history. You don’t need it to care for your family, to grow your own food, to be an inspiring musician or actor or author or speaker, but if you want a “good” job—if you to spend your days working for someone other than yourself—you must have that piece of paper. And this is what makes the job-oriented focus of modern left-wing politics so incoherent—if you get a job with your college degree, you’ll almost inevitably be working directly for the same corporate elite you hate for manipulating the government. Why waste your time enriching them with your productivity when you could compete with them and sell your productivity to your own clients? Why waste four years in college for a degree that leaves you no more qualified to run your own restaurant or retail boutique, to design web sites or video games, to build houses, or to perform any other service that those around you find valuable?

But there’s a further cognitive dissonance here—if you give government the power to pay for college, you can’t just waste taxpayer dollars on any old college. It has to be one that’s providing a “good” education—but who decides that? It will be decided by the government to whom you gave the power when you told them to pay for college and, by extension, the corporate elite who manipulate the government. Is that really who you want deciding what constitutes a “good” education? Won’t they just end up pushing “education” that churns out highly skilled worker bees and downplaying—or even discriminating against4—education that doesn’t suit their needs? This should not seem farfetched when you consider, for example, that Boeing (part of the “military-industrial complex” and, therefore, of the corporate elite) has already been positioning itself this way in the education system of South Carolina, one of the most crony-capitalist states in the country.5

If you don’t like corporate elitism, big oil, Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, etc., you’re far better off opposing any growth in government—including in education—and not even bothering with college, for that matter, instead educating yourself with whatever you need to know to run your own business. It’s a truly incoherent position to oppose corporate control of government while simultaneously demanding that government pay for college, but from it you can get a good sense of how Republicans and Democrats in reality are merely two arms of the same monster. The right hand “taxes” the people and gives that money to corporations “to create jobs”, and now the left hand wants to “tax” the people and give that money to colleges “to educate the people”—a pretty euphemism for “training the masses to fill corporate jobs”. Either way, you’re taxed and corporations benefit. Heads they win, tails you lose.

1. This report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows clearly that rising tuition costs are already exactly what happens thanks to Federal student loan subsidy. If government-subsidized college is what has made college tuition unaffordable, how can even more subsidy make it affordable?

2. And—don’t be fooled—do you honestly think you won’t be paying for this “free” education? Nonsense! You may not be writing a check to a university or a student loan servicer under this plan, but you will eventually be writing a bigger check to Uncle Sam for all the extra debt he racked up in your name to pay for your “free” college.

3. Except, perhaps, surgery, but then again, medicine was most commonly learned through apprenticeship rather than medical school until little over a century ago.

4. Christians, for example, could find that since private religiously affiliated universities, by teaching creationism over evolution, fail to conform to mainstream standards of education, they could therefore end up likely targets for funding disqualification. Conversely, Christians could conceivably usurp this process, as they always try—often successfully—to do with government processes, and target secular institutions for failing to teach creationism.

5. See this article for some details.

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