Saturday, August 29, 2009

Subsidizing the Common Good II: Education

Supporters of government-funded education—including but not limited to schools, loans for postsecondary education, and job-training programs—claim that it enables children from poorer families to get good jobs; without it, these kids would be stuck in dead-end, mind-numbing jobs that don’t pay enough for them to live decently, let alone build the capital necessary to learn more lucrative work or start their own businesses.

John Perkins, a black man with a lifetime of experience helping the poor, famously remarked that giving food subsidies in the form of welfare checks and food stamps to poor blacks did not help them escape poverty; instead, the money went straight into the pockets of the businessmen they patronized. The same holds true with subsidized education.

Let’s begin with student loans. I am less than objective about this subject because I have two daughters, aspiring professional musicians, who are up to their eyeballs in debt for college and grad school. Music jobs are scarce, and you have to beat dozens of competitors land one.

We can make some safe assumptions: most of those auditioning have taken on debt to acquire the training needed even to compete for the opening; those whose families could afford to send them to music camps and the best private teachers during pre-college years are more likely to win; those who don’t get the job will be doing something other than performing music to earn the money to pay off their loans; and those fallback jobs will be less rewarding than not only performing but also other activities the musician could have been trained for.

What can we conclude but that it is the education establishment and the loan companies, not the students, who benefit most from the loans? Remember: the purpose of the subsidy is to increase the number of students, whether or not there are openings for them to fill after they graduate: “Hey, the money’s there—go for it.” More students mean more money for the educators and the loan sharks. If the student is happy to study and pay off the loan, then the loan has achieved its goal. But while the few who do land jobs will be poster children for the program, for the many whose hopes were falsely raised, the result is time wasted in vain pursuit of the dream and time lost drudging to pay off the loan.

Music is an extreme example, but psychology, political science, and a host of other majors boast graduates working in call centers and other jobs that use only skills taught in middle school. And the clichĂ© about engineers selling hot dogs didn’t come from nowhere.

Furthermore, much time after middle school is spent in “you need this to graduate and it might come in handy someday” subjects. I got good grades in school, and I even successfully factored a polynomial in a housebuilding project a few years ago. But I am also making fewer inflation-adjusted dollars now as a computer geek than I did at seventeen as a bicycle mechanic (unless you count health insurance), while “dummies” and dropouts from my secondary school years are running their own sand and gravel or plumbing or auto repair businesses.

In short, many of the diplomas made possible by government subsidies are simply proof to prospective employers that the holder can spend a decade or two obeying commands to engage in fruitless activity—precisely what is needed for dead-end, mind-numbing jobs.

1 comment:

  1. WOW, that is depressing. I hope more people find good jobs from their post-secondary education than not. Any idea what would work better?