What if you went to school for free?

Counterpoint: Charging tuition is socially responsible

Across the nation, college students and faculty were recently protesting, sometimes violently, against tuition hikes by public universities. Faced with grim budget outlooks, state governments have reduced funding to higher education; the worst cuts are in California, where perpetual fiscal mismanagement has left legislators with few alternatives. As the cost of an MIT education (the sum of tuition, fees, books, room and board) crosses $50,000 next year, there may be a temptation among some MIT students to join in and stage the same sort of sit-ins and rallies that have appeared elsewhere.

Don’t. We should recognize these protests for what they are — the pathetic whining of one of history’s most coddled and self-entitled generations. In California, where tuition fees are expected to rise $585/semester starting next January, one student responded to the miniscule decrease in her otherwise massive state subsidy by asking: “How are we going to save the future if we can’t even get into our classes?”

Put aside, for a moment, the second half of that question, which assumes that tuition increases deny students education rather than incrementally add to their student debt. In the first half, you have the spirit of the protests exactly. How dare taxpayers refuse to carry us? Don’t those simpletons understand that we are their saviors? How can we be expected to deliver utopia to the masses if we (read: our parents) are made to pay for the resources we consume?

The protesters are missing the moral big picture. Each year, society (through the admissions department of MIT) selects (through a combination of merit and circumstance) roughly 1,000 high school graduates to benefit from a top-notch MIT education. Selecting these students, in economic terms, is the equivalent of handing them a big bag of money. Almost irregardless of their intellectual caliber when they were selected, or the level of education received while matriculated, each student that attends MIT will receive greater wages. From the signalling effect of an MIT diploma alone, students are nearly guaranteed to make back their tuition money several times over the course of their lifetime.

Horizontal equality dictates that the recipients of an MIT education pay something back. Why should these 1,000 people receive a big bag of money and no one else? Why shouldn’t society have the right to demand that in return for this big bag of money, the beneficiaries must work for some period to provide goods and services that society finds useful? Your student debt is not an imposition on your civil rights — it is a just and moral obligation to repay a small fraction of the public sacrifice that was made on your behalf.

In short, education is an investment, an economic good akin to hamburgers or iPhones. The accounting may be complex, what with the spill-over benefits that students have on research, that research has on students, that students have on other students, and so on, but at the end of the day, absent some convincing case of market failure, MIT maximizes both efficiency and equality by offering its education at a price that is somewhere between the marginal cost of educating the student and the marginal benefit to the student.

“But Keith,” I can hear the protesters complaining, “my student debt is crippling! Instead of being able to use my MIT education to (fill in your own altruistic Activity X here), I’ll have to go work at a job that pays money! How can it be socially optimal that I am financially obligated to earn wages when I could be doing Activity X?”

Firstly, have some faith in the free market. A few well-publicized banker bonuses notwithstanding, it remains that the compensation from a job roughly reflects the benefit it provides to society. There is a serious argument to be had that for whatever Activity X is suggested, the social benefits are not as great as imagined — if it really were as wondrous as claimed, why wouldn’t the free market have found a way to reward those who performing it?

Secondly, let’s go ahead and assume that there exist ventures that are socially optimal but provide very little compensation. If that is the case, then why are we assuming that MIT educated people are the only ones capable of doing these jobs? If Mr. John Doe is burdened by credit card debt, or a mortgage, or any other form of monetary limitation that constrains him to take well-paying jobs, then why shouldn’t he receive a big free bag of money like Mr. MIT Grad? What claim of entitlement do we have that trumps that of our fellow man? Because we’re so much smarter and superior than them? There is an assumption that as MIT students we are exempt from the normal rules of economic exchange, that we should be above them by virtue of our own self-proclaimed greatness. But John Doe can join the military. John Doe can teach in inner city schools. John Doe can volunteer in soup kitchens and plant trees and build shelters and found start-ups. Jane Doe can even give birth, raise children, and instill values in the next generation (and she routinely gets paid squat for that). What makes MIT students so special that we should be showered with gifts while the rank and file go without?

Finally, let’s assume that socially-great-but-poorly-compensated ventures abound and that MIT students deserve special exemption from the free market because of our huge honking brains — who is to say that lower tuition wouldn’t enable grads to waste their talents just as readily as it enables them to go off and do super-valuable things? For every debt-reduced graduate that runs off to a low-wage start-up, how many will lounge on their parents’ couch? Society might give up the occasional stroke of brilliance that comes from a garage-based innovator, but in return gains the diligent work of a dozen would-be homebodies. The free market is a successful motivator of people because it does not rely upon the altruism of its participants. Other economic systems have been relegated to the ash heap of history specifically because they over-relied on weak motivators to compel individuals to serve the greater good. You may be convinced that you would do the right thing and join the Peace Corps if your student debt were a little bit lower, but how confident are you that your fellow students would do the same?

Education is not a free lunch. It requires resources, the cost of those resources must be borne by someone, and there is nothing noble in demanding that someone else bear your costs for you.