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Beyond financial implications: Unintended consequences of government funding on the quality of the American college education

Financial involvement on the part of government tends to cause increasing prices for whatever goods and services are affected. Most Paulites and fans of the Austrian School are aware of this. Demand increases beyond normal market levels causing a strain on supply which in turn leads to abnormally high prices. However, the problem doesn't typically end with the financial implications of such policies. The quality of the affected goods and services tends to decline as well. College education is no exception.

Throughout the history of education, failure rates have been an important criterion for judging the effectiveness of educators. The premise is that given a generic group of students if the teacher is doing his or her job adequately, the average grade should fall in the 70 percentile range (assuming the traditional grading system employed in the US). If the failure rate is too high, the educator is thought to be too difficult. If the failure rate is too low, the educator is thought to be too easy. Fair enough... right? Let's consider the consequences when this historical yardstick for teachers is coupled with the abnormally high demand created by government financial involvement.

Traditionally - for the most part - only those people that desired to go to college attended. In the past, the cost of a college education was low enough where motivated individuals could work their way through with little or no financial assistance - if the individual was responsible with personal finances. Nowadays, college education is perceived to be free by many students graduating from high school. Grants are widely available, and subsidized loans from the government seem to be free money to young people that can defer the payments for the duration of their academic careers. Further, the staggering student loan debt now facing young Americans has lead the government to consider forgiveness without pay after a certain time period which cements affected loans as "free money" to the borrowers.

As a consequence, student populations at American universities have increased by a sizable amount in part due to students that use college as an avenue to avoid immediate participation in the workforce while still gaining more independence from their parents. College seems to be a free interim activity for people that want to have the "college experience" but aren't really that interested in learning or working. Further, students that are genuinely interested in going to college but didn't perform well in grade school are more likely to attend under the current conditions since none of their own treasure is at stake. In itself, this is not an academic problem, but it does increase the failure rates.

As the number of students booms, failure rates naturally increase because it is unavoidable that the pool of students will be overall less prepared than would be a group which attended in past years. It follows that educators and/or their superiors begin to question their abilities to teach. Pressure builds to take action as the grades fall below average. What happens next?

Much of the time what happens next is the teacher begins to have lower expectations for the students. Additional extra points are given on homework or exams that classes have found too challenging. Less material is covered or covered in less depth as before. With enough adjustment of the course structure, the average grades are once again brought into the 70 percentile range. Problem solved... right?

As stated previously, a certain amount of students would attend college even in the absence of government assistance. How does this affect those students? Quite simply, the quality of the education that they receive is of lower standards than in the past. To really rub salt in the wound, these students now have to pay more for this lower quality education. Naturally, the educated workforce is less qualified overall, and over time, the collective knowledge of humanity deteriorates.

To combat this, educators should expect more out of their students - not less. To hell with the failure rate. Government interference in education has rendered that litmus test for rating teachers obsolete.

Note: I have told my students in the past that there is no guarantee that every one of their professors will be a great educator. It is the responsibility of the student to read the book and ask questions when something is unclear. Besides that, sitting in class and listening to the lecture does not constitute learning or guarantee retention of the material. Learning is an exercise that must be actively engaged in by the student for optimal results. Someone can explain to me in great detail how to build a house, but that doesn't mean that I'm now qualified to build a house.

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Bump because...

this is likely one of the most important issues facing the US today behind the debt debacle and fascism.