A Right to a College Education?

President Obama has announced that “every American will have to get more than a high school diploma.” He calls for the United States once again to have the highest percentage of college graduates in the world—60%. Michelle Singletary calls a college education a “right”—by which she means that you and I have to pay not only for our own children’s education but for the education of everyone else.

Richard Fernandez observes that

What Singletary probably wants as a “right” is guaranteed access to a car, house and all the goodies which were once correlated with attending tertiary education. A worthless degree isn’t much of a right. It is hardly a “privilege”.

He then makes an observation I’ve called Reynolds’ Law:

The trouble was that like a college education, home ownership was partly the consequence and not the cause of middle class earning power and work habits. A diploma and mortgage did not bestow the characteristics of a winner on its recipients. People who could never pass a rigorous tertiary educational course or pay off a mortgage couldn’t do so even with government “help”. It just pushed them in over their heads.

As a college professor with more than 30 years’ experience teaching, I wonder what the people who think that everyone should go to college think they should study. Half the population has an IQ of under 100; 15% have IQs under 85. Is the proposal that we teach calculus to students with IQs of 70? 80? 90? How about physics? Good luck with that. The only way that we could give more than 50% of the population college educations is to change what a college education is. We’ve been doing that, sadly, for a generation or more. But it’s one thing to try to educate those in the 100-115 IQ range; it’s quite another to try to educate those with IQs significantly below 100.

That probably sounds elitist. But it’s not just that many people couldn’t do college-level work—it’s that they wouldn’t want to. I know a lot of people who would hate spending their time doing math problems, reading, sitting in classrooms, and doing the other things college students have to do to succeed. Not everyone would be happy doing a job that required a college education.

Not everyone, for that matter, could possibly have such a job. Someone has to pick up the garbage. Someone has to drive buses, mine coal, till fields, repair engines, build cars, build buildings, install plumbing—in short, make and fix things. As a society, we need people to do those things, and to do them well. Do you want to have to call a philosophy major when a pipe breaks? Do you want women’s studies majors making machine tools?

Of course, there’s also a massive financial problem. College is expensive. Who is to pay for this? Has no one on the Left noticed that we’re out of money?

It’s becoming increasingly obvious that the Left’s lists of “rights”—to distinguish them from rights in the proper sense, let’s call them entitlements—is open-ended. Why just college? Why not a right to a law degree? A right to a six-figure salary? A right to a margarita every Friday evening? It’s one thing to argue that people are entitled to things they need to live—food, water, and shelter, for example—though I think that’s a mistake. It’s quite another to argue that they are entitled to college educations, health care, contraceptives, abortions, mortgages, help when they can’t pay their mortgages, and on and on. A British politician has insisted that everyone is entitled to a vacation overseas. And why not? Once the list gets started, it’s hard to see where to stop.

There’s a serious philosophical failing underlying the Left’s ever-expanding list of entitlements. What makes something an entitlement? The thought that A is entitled to X if and only if A cannot survive without X is coherent, even if incorrect and even if the Left has no intention of applying it to fetuses, comatose patients, etc. But people can survive without college educations, mortgages, preventive health checkups, contraceptives, and lots of other things the Left wants to dole out.

The best answer to this I’ve heard is that A is entitled to X if and only if A cannot flourish without X. But that’s an incredibly vague and expansive thesis. It’s more plausible to claim that human flourishing requires love, friendship, children, accomplishments, purpose, and self-respect than that it requires college education, home ownership, and abortion. And the former, even more clearly than the latter, have to be accomplished; they cannot be given.

The problem with socialism, Margaret Thatcher said, is that eventually you run out of other people’s money. That’s true partly because socialists go to the store not with a list of what they need but with the vague idea that they’ll buy anything that seems nice, put it on credit, and send someone else the bill.

3 thoughts on “A Right to a College Education?

  1. There are community colleges for the lower half where they can learn a trade. Everybody benefits with an educated population. Only Republicans want to keep people uneducated, scared, and angry.

  2. I prefer the term “aspiration” in this sense to “entitlement”.

    I hate to go all anecdotal on you, but as the parent of a young man whose dazzling test scores and IQ were supposed predictors of a life of brainwork, he and we found out the hard way that the fulfillment of work, an honest and creative occupation can take many forms, and for most young people, the postponment of preparedness for adult responsibility that has a profoundly negative effect.

  3. I have no desire to keep people “uneducated, scared, and angry”! Nor do I deny the benefits of education; I’ve dedicated my life to it. And I’m glad that we make it possible for almost anyone who wants higher education to obtain it. But Obama’s statement comes close to a demand that everyone be above average. It can’t be done.

    You’re right to point out the value of community colleges. But should everyone get some education beyond high school? Let’s start with finishing high school; we’re far from having everyone do that. (And having everyone finish might or might not be desirable—that’s another question.) But beyond? Are we admitting that high school graduation itself prepares people for nothing? Are we to include apprenticeships, service in the military, and playing in a rock and roll band as forms of post-secondary education? If so, maybe there’s nothing to disagree about. If not, I see no reason to believe that *everyone* would be better off in at least a community college than in one of those or a host of other activities.

    Barbara, you’re right to note that it’s not just ability and desire but also maturity that makes a big difference. Sending people to college who lack the desire to go, the ability to succeed, or the maturity to benefit from the experience does no one any good.

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