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Correction appended.

Monday's editorial ("Cut it out," March 1) was yet another iteration of the editorial page board cloaking socialist sensibilities in vaguely utilitarian terms. They chided Congress for cutting college subsidies, suggesting that said funding is a worthy "investment" in America's economy. I demur.

Four-year colleges are not worthless, and high-level educational programs should not be restricted to those who have deep pockets. However, taxpayers' funds are not being used efficiently when we subsidize four years of tuition to glorified social clubs.

The phrase "cutting public funding for colleges" conjures up images of destitute geniuses who will never hold a diploma due to the machinations of stingy conservatives. "Without tax subsidies," the argument goes, "the next Einstein may waste away mowing lawns."
This alarmism is unwarranted. Financial aid exists in a world without taxpayer subsidies.

Even the most profit-hungry universities have myriad incentives to pay the way for students who can't do so themselves; need-blind admissions lead to greater prestige, increased applications and higher rates of alumni giving. 

Since colleges already have the means and the motive to provide student aid, taxpayer funding effectively subsidizes pet projects. Money is fungible. A National Review article highlighted a recent Sports Illustrated story describing the consequences of federal "aid": The University of Missouri recently constructed the "indoor Tiger grotto... (which) takes on a South Beach vibe... Students chill in the hot tub or splash in a lazy river surrounded by palm trees and a rocky waterfall while waiters serve poolside wraps, smoothies and protein shakes."

There is no explicit connection between tax subsidies and Mizzou's palatial sports complex, but perhaps one or two of those 50 million dollars would have been spent on initiatives less sexy than hot tubs and indoor waterfalls had not American taxpayers swallowed the bill for the basics. 

Tiger Grottos aside, it is not entirely clear that upping the number of Americans with four-year degrees is beneficial for the students or for the economy. The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on four years of undergraduate tuition are often wasted.
An early 2007 study found that one out of four college graduates works in an occupation that does not require a college education. 15 percent of college graduates are unemployed.

The expected rebuttal? The converse of the above-quoted statistic is that three out of four college graduates are employed by a firm that does require a four-year degree. 
Conceded, but why do so many jobs require college degrees? Author Robert Verbruggen suggests that, given the "massive tuition subsidies" taxpayers provide, the B.A. has become little more than a "convenient and free screening method." To wit: While you will never use $150,000 dollars' worth of undergraduate sociology, MCM or psychology in the private sector, prospective employers use your B.A. to establish a baseline of competency: The applicant was able to gain admission to a college and graduate. So long as we insist on sending every somewhat competent high school graduate to a four-year college, regardless of his or her ability to pay tuition, "B.A." remains excellent shorthand for "somewhat competent." 

If we stopped subsidizing college tuition, businesses would be forced to utilize less pricey methods of separating the wheat from the chaff. As Verbruggen puts it, with entrance exams, "a few minutes with a pencil and a sheet of paper could accomplish what requires four years today."

Verbruggen is in good — and startlingly diverse — company. A symposium of higher-education experts printed in the November 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education revealed that both liberals and conservatives within higher education felt that a four-year degree was always costly, often inefficient and did not necessarily impart the skills that workers needed to be effective on the job.

The four-year system is certainly worthwhile for engineers, pre-medical students, academics and a select few individuals. But author Charles Murray offers that, in most cases, "there are better, faster and more efficient ways for young people to acquire credentials to provide to employers." 

Murray, Verbruggen and others suggest that if taxpayer subsidies come into play, they should more often be directed towards vocational and two-year programs in specified fields. 

The traditional benefits attached to a college education are rapidly eroding in the face of free public libraries and the Internet. To borrow a line from Good Will Hunting, why drop 150 grand on an education that you can get for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library?

It may smack of injustice that the rich can afford cushy colleges while less moneyed, more talented individuals attend stigmatized vocational schools. But stigmas change with time. Rest easy knowing that the shrewdness of the private sector will cut through the facade and hire the most qualified candidates.

Hopefully, the B.A. will soon be seen as a luxury good, like a closet full of polo shirts or a sports car. It's a status symbol that is nice to have, but it isn't clear that everyone needs it to succeed. And it's certain that taxes shouldn't be paying for it.

Will Wray '10 wants to splash in a lazy river and drink smoothies.

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that the Tiger Grotto recreation center is located at the University of Mississippi. In fact, it is located at the University of Missouri. The Herald regrets the error.


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