What if college and healthcare were both free?

| January 10, 2009 | 9 Replies

Erich’s post about free college got me thinking: what if college and healthcare were both free? What if America’s college-bound population — the nation’s intelligentsia — could seriously consider getting married and having children at the same young age that the rest of the population tended to reproduced? What if America’s most brightest offspring didn’t have to postpone family life until after college or, for the very brightest, until after graduate or professional school?

I’ve touched on this subject before. When a population has no predators to thin the herd, evolution will not necessarily favor the smartest, fastest or otherwise best-equipped of the species; it will merely favor those who reproduce the quickest. Accordingly, to the extent that America’s economic system has eliminated predators and, worse, created a system in which the rate of reproduction is inversely proportional to intelligence, America faces a future that, over many generations, seems inevitably to create a genetic disadvantage compared to other nations in which this inverse evolutionary pressure does not exist — namely, nations in which education and healthcare are provided freely to everyone. We might already be witnessing the start of this process: citizens of many countries that nationalized their education and healthcare systems long ago are enjoying a higher standard of living than are citizens of the U.S. Indeed, if you examine the data for life expectancy and infant mortality (for example), you’ll find that many nations that provide its citizens both education and healthcare benefits (France, Germany, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, etc.) outperform the U.S.

We should always remember that the United States is a relatively radical experiment in democratic government, and one that is still in its infancy. Accordingly, we should never assume that its system of government, including its particular choice of privately- versus publicly-funded institutions, is necessarily optimal for human existence.

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About the Author ()

Grumpypilgrim is a writer and management consultant living in Madison, WI. He has several scientific degrees, including a recent master’s degree from MIT. He has also held several professional career positions, none of which has been in a field in which he ever took a university course. Grumps is an avid cyclist and, for many years now, has traveled more annual miles by bicycle than by car…and he wishes more people (for the health of both themselves and our planet) would do the same. Grumps is an enthusiastic advocate of life-long learning, healthy living and political awareness. He is single, and provides a loving home for abused and abandoned bicycles. Grumpy’s email: grumpypilgrim(AT)@gmail(DOT).com [Erich’s note: Grumpy asked that his email be encrypted this way to deter spam. If you want to write to him, drop out the parentheticals in the above address].

Comments (9)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Grumpy: I don't agree with your assessment because genetic changes are extremely slow compared to cultural/environmental effects on individuals. You seem to be suggesting that those who don't go to college are genetically inferior. I think that assumption is a terrible mistake. Just because many of our highest achieving citizens (especially our Nobel laureates) are college educated doesn't mean that college education can be used as a reliable token for intelligence. Once given an opportunity and encouragement, millions of young adults from what you would characterize as low-achieving families show their brilliance. And it's not only through the attainment of college degrees that they achieve. Many of them achieve well without college degrees or despite college degrees. Consider, also, that millions of people with college degrees are intellectually dysfunctional and/or morally dysfunctional (think of all of the college-educated white-collar cheats in suits who are tanking the U.S. economy).

    I don't deny that there are differences in raw intellect among humans (much of "general intelligence" has been repeatedly shown to be inherited rather than learned). I just don't buy your purported strong correlation between college education and intelligence. I've seen too many kids with raw smarts trapped in dysfunctional schools because of circumstances in which they were born, rather than genetics. That they didn't go on to a university doesn't make them less smart. And that they didn't get a degree but had kids doesn't make their kids less smart.

  2. Dan Klarmann says:

    We keep coming back to "The Marching Morons" and such stories as we discussed last march in Ayn Rand’s heartless version of Objectivism

    The problem with deciding "superiority" is that it is always subjective and bears a very loose relationship to "fitness" (in the Darwinian sense). We over-thinkers may see ourselves as "more equal" in a cultural matrix rich enough to support us. But species survival depends on us maintaining as wide a distribution of types as possible. Arguably cultural survival, as well. And it is rare in history that civilizations can foster an elite class of people who are trained to think things through.

    Brains are expensive; ask a biologist. It makes sense to have fewer of us non-productive sorts than those who are better suited to prevailing after a sudden shift in circumstances.

    Note also that brilliant parents rarely produce brilliant offspring. Where do the geniuses come from? "Humble" parentage. Name the contributions of the parents of Einstein, or Newton, or Mozart. Think of any? How about the kids of stellar performers?

    And don't underestimate the mental breadth necessary to be a mud-footed farmer or to raise kids in abject poverty. These folk may not have studied the classics, but I'd bet on their skills when the power goes out.

    But this drifts from the point of free college. As with monetary inflation, if college were free the degrees would be worth less. A current graduate of a community college is about as well educated as a high school graduate was 50 years ago. By giving almost everyone who shows up a 12th grade diploma, too many people are graduating with an 8th grade education, or worse.

    Continuing the trend another 4 years is unlikely to improve the situation. If State colleges were free, then we'd get into the whole "rights" mess that would bring this devaluation about. We'd then get even more college graduates with marginal literacy and numeracy.

    I would be in favor of tax-free education expenses, however. Higher education is an investment in the future of the country, and this could well be reflected in the tax code.

  3. There is a basic misnomer in this proposal. Nothing is free. The method of payment is shifted. We need to get over this notion that charging for something is somehow optional. Someone always pays. (Even the Soviets and the Chinese Communists found this out, much to pure Marxists dismay.)

  4. Karl says:

    I'm with Dan on the need for tax-free education expenses, but I'm also for an educational climate that permits individual choice in how their tax funded education dollars are put to use for the good of the entire population, not just for the preservation and maintenance of policies and schools that are not improving but actually show more and more failing outcomes. Some people wish everyone was at least getting an 8th grade education.

    Media today seems to make the fifth grade a challenging level for popular culture to acheive.

  5. AnonaMiss says:

    Links I would most like everybody to look at at the top, because this post is definitely tl;dr:
    http://www.reason.com/news/show/125163.html http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=mothe

    Free education wouldn't mean that everyone with brains or potential could or would go to college; hardly. Even "free" is an expense level – going to school instead of making money is still a matter of opportunity cost. People with kids, people with other financial obligations, people who made mistakes in their adolescent years that left them with grades not reflective of their potential – these people would all still be unable to attend college. Plus there's the people who don't care about college because a college education isn't something they've seen to be valuable in their experiences – which sometimes IS the most intelligent thing to do, given the information that they've received, growing up in tough neighborhoods.

    And most of the people not in these categories could afford at least a basic college education even under the current system, if they religiously saved their money (remember, people with significant financial obligations is a category) and applied for scholarships. Free college education would help only a band of lower middle-class people whose families make too much money to get decent FAFSA ratings, but not enough to effectively pay for college.

    And expanding on Mark Tiedemann's point: reducing tuitions to 0 would increase taxes for everyone, as well as the cost-of-living (room and board) in the suddenly more-in-demand areas around college campuses.

    And after college, what happens then? Maybe some college-educated people put off having children until after they pay off their college debt, but considering the rate of debt – mortgages, credit cards, car loans – which many people find normal and acceptable to live with, I doubt many do. I think those college-educated people who want children (definitely a subset) put off having children because they're waiting for their careers to mature and take off, not because of expenses or health care. If health care includes child care, I speculate that more NON-college educated people would put off having children for lack of that, because their lower average salaries make childcare less affordable for them. (If anybody has any statistics on this they'd be much appreciated; I'm kind of busy tonight).

    People talk about the future reproduction of the human race, and which people are doing the reproducing, as though it's some huge important goal; and a lot of the time they do it in nationalistic terms. "We need to have more smart babies to outwit our future international competition!", is what I read as the unspoken presumption on which your post is based. I see this as outmoded thinking. Globalization is on the rise and in the foreseeable future will continue to occur – is it really appropriate to think in terms of "the US versus the rest of the world" when we're talking about something as slow-moving, long-term and global as evolution?

    And as a woman, when I hear talk about how educated/white/American/what-have-you people need to have more babies to balance population ratios, I shudder. The single greatest predictor of a nation's birthrate is the average education level of its women. Educated women are those that benefit the most from putting off having children, as educated men's careers are rarely affected – have you ever heard of someone's career being put on the "daddy track"? Even if free childcare were available, and it should be, the damage it would do to women's careers would only be mitigated. And when a woman's career prospects fall, so does her ability to function independently. In the event of a divorce, mothers get larger proportional custody of children ( http://deltabravo.net/custody/divrates.php ), which limits their employment opportunities even further than traditional "mommy track"ing, in addition to saddling them with extra childcare costs and extreme time-use opportunity costs. Women who were single mothers are 55% more likely to live in poverty in their old age compared to those who had children within a marriage, even after controlling for education ( http://psychsoc.gerontologyjournals.org/cgi/conte… ); and according the second link at the top of this post, a woman reduces her chances of going bankrupt by 65% by choosing not to have children. This is a very strong disincentive for women to have children, especially educated women, who could support themselves alone more easily than uneducated women, and thus have more to lose. So while making college free could have the effect of increasing the number of children born to college-educated parents, it would likely be due more to the devaluation of college degrees/loss of income of college-educated women than to the reduction of college fees themselves.

    TL;DR: Talking about reproductive issues in this detached and Darwinistic way – that is, assuming increased reproduction is necessarily a good thing – is not only naive, but actively insulting to the half of the population that has to give up so much more of their time, money, effort, potential ambition, potential fulfillment, and potential retirement to produce and raise babies with whatever trait the conversation is revolving around – be it white American heritage, as it too often seems to be in these conversations, or intelligence.

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The is a belief held by some conservatives that not everyone should go to college. This assesment has some merit. Some people have abilities and skill sets that simply do not provide benefit from college and traditonal university studies. Some may become more productive by adopting a trade or vocation and many may service the future society by working as laborers.

    The problem I have with the conservatives, is that they believe the decision about who goes to college and who doesn't should be entireley based on ability to pay. I thinks it would be better if access to higher education were based on merit not money.

  7. Karl says:

    Which brings us to who decides between Bobby Joe conservative and Bobby Joe liberal. That sounds like it would fly just great. Why not just say you want to set the curriculum and approve who gets the tax dollars as well.

    Opps, I forgot, that's already happening.

    Healthcare will of course also be decided impartially to the great society as well.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Karl, there was a time not long ago, when college entrance exams and academics meant more than now. However, even then, wealth or athletic prowess was taken into consideration and allowed bending the rules.

    In the past, when enrollment dropped, the academic standards were relaxed, but when over crowding occurred, standards improved. When I was in college, I was a Mational Merit Scholar, and I worked part time jobs to pay for my incidental expenses. Across the hall in the dorm was Jeff whose father was a senior vp in a well known corporation. Jeff partied all the time, and relied on the "Ol man's money" to buy his way out of trouble. I was from a poor family, my mother worked in a factory and my dad worked various odd jobs mostly in construction.

    Jeff's GPA stayed around 1.0. He bragged about it. When my GPA dropped below 3.0 for 2 quarters, I lost my scholarship and was forced to drop out. (I eventually got a 2 year degree from a community college)

    There were perks for the rich kids. They could preregister (for a hefty fee) and get the best professors. The poor kids got stuck with the left-overs. The point I'm making is that for those like Jeff, a diploma is a meaningless piece of paper, because it isn't earned. Others who work very hard in an uphill battle, often don't make it, because money trumps merit in this society.

  9. Karl says:

    No complaints over your perspective on the rich kids who have life handed to them on a silver platter. I didn't attend a pestigious school with some desire to land a high paying job, if that were the case I would have probably bought into what the culture told me was proper for a college trained professional in science to believe about their ability to find the most reasonable model concerning the natural world.

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