Antony Davies & James R. Harrigan: Government should stop pushing kids into college

Antony Davies & James R. Harrigan: Government should stop pushing kids into college

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Late last month, Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Keystone Scholars Program into law. The brainchild of Treasurer Joe Torsella, this program will give every Pennsylvania child a $100 scholarship at birth to help pay for college. The money, which will go straight into PA 529 education accounts, will cost taxpayers around $14 million per year. The $100 itself is largely meaningless to the recipients, of course. By the time today’s newborns are ready for college, that amount won’t buy a single textbook.

The point of the scholarship isn’t the money; the point is to get parents thinking about saving for college from the moment of a child’s birth. Currently, only 25,000 enrolled Pennsylvania college students are using 529 plans. That’s an underwhelming 4 percent of college students in the state. This $14 million initiative aims to change that.

This effort rests on the assumption that everyone should go to college. College admissions offices agree heartily, but there was a time when parents would wait to determine whether a child was “college material.” Now, the prevailing attitude is that somehow we’ve failed if every child doesn’t get a degree.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Any number of young people should not consider going to college for a variety of reasons. Inadequate preparation is an obvious one. But equally important are drive, maturity, talent, personality and the child’s interest in academic versus technical pursuits.

Data indicate that the government has been successful in pushing higher education on parents. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the fraction of 15- to 24-year-olds enrolled in nonprofit colleges and universities rose from 15 percent in 1959 to almost 50 percent today. Either today’s young people are more than three times smarter than previous generations, or there are a lot of people enrolled in colleges and universities who probably shouldn’t be.

Politicians love talking about how everyone has a right to go to college, but they are not nearly as keen about asking whether everyone should exercise that right. The Keystone Scholars Program is just one more in a long list of nudges government has put in place to push students into higher education.

We have spent about a half-century telling generations of students that college is the key to success. High school is now simply a waystation on the path to a college degree, so much so that high schools are rated by the number of students they place in college programs. We already subsidize higher education in the form of more than 1,650 public colleges and universities nationwide. And because these massive state subsidies aren’t enough, the federal government guarantees and subsidizes college loans, too.

What do we have to show for it? At almost $40,000 per graduate, total college debt among U.S. students currently dwarfs the economies of most countries. And we are treated to seemingly endless complaints by graduates who chose majors that employers find largely worthless.

Meanwhile, training in plumbing, electrical or automotive work generates more income than do two-thirds of college majors. In the end, it doesn’t sound like everyone should go to college at all. Government at all levels, including Pennsylvania’s, should stop pushing people in that direction.

Antony Davies is associate professor of economics at Duquesne University. James R. Harrigan teaches in the department of Political Economy and Moral Science at the University of Arizona.

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