Professor gets Hillary Clinton, James Madison wrong

James Madison

James Madison

Economics Professor Jack Chambless wrote a piece in Wednesday’s Billings Gazette arguing that Hillary Clinton’s proposal for free college tuition is a bad idea.

He could have said, “Nice thought, but we can’t afford it.” Instead, he makes a more complicated case. Here’s his argument: (1) free tuition would create an artificial demand for college classes, forcing universities either to expand or to raise admission standards; (2) inept students would be enticed to attend college; (3) those inept students could have spent their time more profitably with an internship or vocational training; (4) the value of a college degree would be reduced; (5) professors would be stuck teaching “educational welfare recipients”; (6) free stuff is poor stuff; and (7) taxpayers should not be forced to pay to educate the children of others.

Whew. That’s a lot of weight for a short column to bear. Fortunately, his arguments are easily dismissed:

  1. How is this a bad thing? The University of Montana, Montana State University Billings and many other colleges across the country are struggling to fill their classrooms. A bit more demand would be nice.

So would higher admission standards. Academic literature is full of essays about how colleges desperate to increase enrollment are turning students into consumers rather than learners. This leads to lowered standards, grade inflation and the potential tyranny of student evaluations.

As one old-fashioned professor put it: “Education is not a business. You are not my customer. My classroom is not Burger King. You do not get to ‘have it your way.’”

Which might just sound arrogant if there were not studies showing that students who think like consumers perform worse in college.

  1. Inept students already are enticed to attend college because of pressure by parents and potential employers. Free tuition would just extend that enticement to poor kids, too.
  2. I suppose. But students who attend college even for just a semester or two haven’t necessarily wasted their time. A student who attended my freshman comp class would at least have read “Billy Budd.” That’s worth a semester of anybody’s life.
  3. Again, not necessarily a bad thing. College degrees already are required by a multitude of employers who just want to see evidence that an employee is willing to show up. The earnings gap between high school and college educated workers is justified, in many occupations, by no real gap in job skills.
  4. Yes, but professors also would get to teach more smart, dedicated students who happen to have no money. Let’s not kid ourselves. Few students pay anywhere close to the full cost of a college education. They get grants, loans, scholarships and, yes, taxpayer subsidies. Why shouldn’t poor kids have access to those things?
  5. From the 19th century to the Reagan gubernatorial administration, public colleges and universities in California charged no tuition. With various grants and subsidies, many California students still pay little. But six of the 11 top schools on U.S. News’ list of the best national universities are in California.
  6. Here Chambless quotes James Madison, who wrote that Congress had no right “of extending on objects of benevolence the money of their constituents.”

But Madison had no problem at all with making taxpayers pay for higher education. In a letter to W.T. Barry in 1822, he wrote that “it is better for the poorer classes to have the aid of the richer by a general tax on property, than that every parent should provide at his own expence for the education of his children.”

Madison did not see education as an act of benevolence. He thought it essential to the survival of a free people.

He wrote, “A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Chambless is a senior fellow at the James Madison Institute. He ought to have read that.

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