President Obama remarked in the recent state of the union address that he is “proposing that every state require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.” A laudable goal (for students to finish school) however the idea that this goal must be forced upon the student by the state is a symptom of how some confuse cause with effect. The effect they wish to see is a “successful” adult and they mistakenly assume that completing school causes this. Motivated individuals will complete schooling just as naturally as a fish swims in water (it is inherent to their nature). Forcing unmotivated individuals to graduate will no more make them successful than does teaching a man to swim make him a fish. Besides, what is the plan here? Jail or fine the student or parents if the kid doesn’t graduate?

Before college tuition costs had ballooned out of control it was only students that had a genuine interest in expanding their knowledge and skills that went to college. These individuals were naturally driven to be successful; going to college was simply a way station on the road to success. Those in government looked at the statistics and saw that successful people had gone to college and thus they confused correlation with causation. Government enabled more and more to attend college each year and thus the floodgates opened to not only ever increasing tuition costs but also a new generation of students where college is no longer viewed as an opportunity to grow one’s knowledge and skills but rather a rite of passage that one is obligated to endure in order to assure “success”. Those that simply endure it exit with a degree and a slightly greater perspective on western culture than your average high school graduate, but that’s about it (oh, and the morale crushing debt burden).

The ultimate goal of government subsidization of college education is nothing short of 100% college education for every citizen. But it should be obvious that were this to be achieved nothing will be gained. If everyone has a college degree then how is that supposed to lead to a high paying job? Salaries depend directly on the number of people capable of performing the desired task. That’s why janitors don’t make much money (everyone can clean) and brain surgeons make a lot. If everyone has a college degree then you’re competing with everyone… that’s a lot of people! So wages will go down for jobs that formerly required a college degree (over supply of labor). Wages will remain high for those that excelled in college (constrained supply of labor). But those were the people that used to be the only ones going to college. So nothing will change, wage disparities will remain since wages are driven by supply and demand. If you don’t believe me then just look at the unemployment levels among recent college graduates, the stories of college grads living with their parents, or college grads working at low paying jobs because they can find no other work. These are all symptoms of oversupply, in this case one that is artificially driven.

It’s not the student’s fault. They’ve been duped by promises of the moon if they can just cross the finish line. So they waste their time on useless (for real world jobs) degrees (i.e. anthropology, women’s studies, etc) that have no value to an employer. However, as with most government policies, the unintended consequences of subsidizing college education are coming home to roost. Turns out there is a large labor shortage in this country: a shortage of skilled trade labor. Because culturally and governmentally we look down on such trades there are fewer and fewer capable of performing these jobs. I suppose when a plumber makes as much as a lawyer the tide will turn naturally, but the point is this “bubble” of unemployable college grads would not exist if government had not meddled in the higher education market.