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You Get What You Pay For
The inanity of free, universal higher education
Commencement 2003

Imagine living in a country where public education is free of charge not only through the twelfth grade but also through the completion of an undergraduate degree. To most Yalies, who have set their parents’ retirements back several decades in order to obtain Yale degrees, the idea of such a country is, of course, tremendously appealing. There are quite a few German officials, however, who would disagree.

For the past three decades, all public higher education in Germany has been free of charge. In order to increase his popularity prior to his re-election, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder preserved this practice in law, making it illegal for state universities to charge students tuition for the classes required for a first degree. Despite the fact that he was merely encoding a pre-existing practice, however, six Christian-Democratic states have decided to challenge Schröder’s law before Germany’s Constitutional Court, arguing that because the responsibility for education belongs to the states, the federal government does not have the right to make such laws.

Why is it that officials in these states are upset about a law that merely requires that which they were already doing voluntarily? Well, it turns out that free education was not all that it was cracked up to be. The most obvious problems faced by German universities are the same problems faced by any government providing a free service: overcrowding and underfunding. However, free higher education is also the source of many more subtle problems.

Free higher education attracts not only students who are enthusiastic about education but also students who are drawn to college because they are unable to figure out what else to do with themselves. Thus, colleges in Germany became placeholders for students who were largely uninterested in receiving an education. This led to overcrowded lecture halls and an environment in which it was impossible for students to have any personal contact with their professors.

Additionally, eliminating the expense of receiving an education destroys the incentive for students who enjoy school to ever graduate. College is a time of difficult decisions. Many students go through two or even three different majors before finally deciding what are they wish to specialize in. However, most are forced to a decision by the fact that they cannot afford to spend more than four or five years in college. While this can occasionally be a bad thing – students sometimes make decisions that they later regret – this is often a good thing because it pushes students to make the difficult and procrastination-inspiring decisions that define one’s college experience. As soon as the state of Baden-Württemberg began charging tuition for every half-year of higher education beyond six-and-a-half years, the number of long-term students at public universities dropped by half. The state cannot afford to support hordes of aimless students as they pursue a decade of higher education.

Providing higher education free of charge to students also creates severe funding problems. German universities are now faced with poorly-stocked libraries and dated research facilities. Even public universities in America, which charge undergraduates for their studies, have difficulty paying for more than what is minimally necessary. Public universities cannot rely solely upon government funding if they want to stay competitive, or even to stay functional. Short of taxing people blind, no government can have that much money available.

Despite these objections to free education, hordes of German citizens in North Rhine-Westphalia, which is the most populous of Germany’s 16 states, raised cries of protest when the premier at the time suggested the implementation of fees. These citizens argued that higher education should be available to everyone free of charge. Implementing fees would exclude some people from universities, making education dependent not upon intelligence but upon wealth.

This problem, however, can easily be addressed with government-sponsored scholarships available to academically gifted students who would be otherwise unable to afford college tuition. Additionally, the tuitions proposed by the six Christian-Democratic states fall far short of exorbitance. Baden- Württemberg settled on the figure of the mere equivalent of 550 U.S. dollars for the tuition increase noted above.

The protestors have little reason to fear that qualified students will be denied an education because of their income bracket. The real motivation behind their protestations, then, is a belief that higher education is a universal human right that should be unconditionally available to all who have the ability to pursue it.

However, there is a very strong argument in favor of some degree of exclusivity in university education; and while said exclusivity should not be drawn along the lines of wealth, the institution of fees at universities is tantamount to the rejection of the idea that higher education is a right that belongs to everyone.

What could possibly be wrong with extending higher education to all citizens of a nation? Why should we not believe that higher education is a universal right? It seems like this could only raise the level of education of the average citizen in a country, which will lead to improvements in both the technology and the civilization of the nation. However, this is not necessarily what occurs when the majority of a nation’s citizens feel entitled to a college degree.

When higher education is seen as a universal human right, it becomes a prerequisite for employment. Unfortunately, this does not mean that people become more educated. Rather, because public universities have to be equipped to deal with both the most intelligent and the least intelligent students, they are forced to lower their standards. Thus, while some colleges continue to improve, others churn out a breed of students who deserve to be called anything but college graduates. They are unable to locate China on a map, cannot pick out a picture of the vice-president of the United States, and think that London is its own country. Turn on the Jay Leno Show any given night to see the proof in America.

Additionally, as soon as college becomes a prerequisite for employment, it becomes a test not of intelligence but of commitment. Employers reject those without college educations not because they are less educated but because they have shown themselves lacking in initiative and in the ability to stay focused in school. While a college education is about more than mere technical skills, colleges lose out when they are faced not with the task of educating students but with the task of forcing them to grow up.

Finally, if higher education is viewed as a universal human right, students will not appreciate the education that they are receiving. They will view college eitheras a place to tread water or as an evil necessary to the acquisition of employment. Professors faced with a classroom of unmotivated and uninterested students cannot hope to truly educate them, and this leaves truly interested students to suffer the consequences.

This is not to say that there will not be any good universities. Those universities with high academic requirements for admission can continue to improve. However, those who believe that higher education is a universal human right force academic standards for some universities lower and lower. Thus, the public ends up paying to educate students who learn virtually nothing from four years in college.

It comes as no surprise to liberals in favor of viewing higher education as a right that conservatives would align themselves against this concept. However, the arguments against this viewpoint extend far beyond a position of snobbery and elitism. Viewing higher education as a universal human right reduces the value of college degrees. It creates a breed of students who are uninterested in their own education and come to college because it is expected or because it is a convenient place to kill time.

In addition to the empirically verified arguments against free higher education that are currently being touted by Christian-Democrats in Germany, another argument against free higher education should be seriously considered. Charging tuition fees undermines the idea that higher education is a universal human right, and the fight against this idea is a fight for preserving the integrity of college degrees.

Nikki McArthur is Editor-in-Chief.


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