Dumbed down

The President recently announced his plan to destroy the community college system. It is really a clever plan. In Trojan horse-esque fashion it cloaks the seeds of destruction in an appealing wrapper. Step 1: identify a non-frivolous economic good and declare it to be “free” for all. Step 2: step back and watch prices soar while quality plummets in a vain effort to keep up with exploding demand. Sound familiar? Healthcare. 4-year College education. The President is clearly an environmentalist; how else to explain his effort to recycle this garbage.

By guaranteeing full payment of tuition only for students maintaining at least a 2.5 GPA, this scheme will not incentivize students to work harder, but rather for teachers to inflate grades. Or rather, students may believe they will have to work harder, but it is far easier to inflate a grade than to study, thus grades will quickly reach that floor long before the efforts of increased studying are needed. Once that happens the value of a 2-year degree will be depreciated. There is no way for a prospective employer to distinguish between a graduate that really did learn the material vs. one who is the product of either inflated grades or a “dumbing down” of the curricula.

Once the administrators realize they can raise tuition each year at a rate vastly exceeding the rate of inflation (because the normal feedback of the customer opting to not purchase a too expensive good vanishes), those administrators in turn will make sure the professors understand their salaries depend on maintaining a certain enrolled student count. Of course the blame for skyrocketing tuition will be that the increased student load requires expansion of services (politely ignoring the economic axiom that individual prices tend to fall as volume goes up, not the other way around). That this will happen is not mere opinion or conjecture, but history: 4-year college tuition has risen at over 3x the rate of inflation since 1978.

The odd thing about this proposal is that community college tuition is already very inexpensive. Typically government only wants to make things “free” after they have meddled in the market long enough to drive prices upward. But the states and local communities already subsidize community colleges in order to keep prices low. The fact that tuition is charged at all is a function of the inability of local government to run their own printing press as well as more direct voter feedback on taxes.

It seems like the President is answering a question no one was asking. How much of a barrier can tuition be – there are already millions paying for it now. And even though the barrier is low, it is important to have some sort of barrier, if only to separate the serious from the unserious student. The President’s proposal mistakes a speed bump for a retaining wall and seeks to eliminate even that minimal level of self-selection. The people already attending have proven that they contain the seeds of success. They made the hard choices and saved their money in order to achieve a better life for themselves.

A secondary, and more sinister, effect of removing that self-selection barrier is it will transform the serious student into a less serious one. No longer is their money on the line, no longer is there pressure to perform lest they waste their hard-saved cash. Humans perform best under pressure, and if you remove that pressure you remove the motivation to perform at one’s peak. So, by removing the pressure of being out of pocket for the tuition, this policy will foster the learning style of the perpetual procrastinator. “So what if I do poorly, I can try again and again, and again” (at least until that GPA dips to a 2.5, that is, a practically failing D-).

I’m not suggesting this drop off in motivation will happen to everyone attending community college. What I am saying is that in aggregate this will be the outcome more often than not. There is a reason there are no private charities that indiscriminately fund adult tuition – it’s a bad idea from a utilitarian standpoint – it harms the individual receiving it and by extension the society in which that individual lives