Bryan Caplan  

Why Not Compulsory College?

Day dreaming for libraries... Eugene Fama, Extreme Libertari...
A few nay-saying libertarians and unschoolers aside, almost everyone favors compulsory K-12 education.  Yet virtually no one favors compulsory college.  It's quite a mystery.  If mandatory education is a great idea at the primary and secondary levels, why would it be a horrible idea at the tertiary level?  What is the origin of this peculiar policy discontinuity?

True, there are many reasons why compulsion makes less sense as students age.  Older students are better informed and less impulsive.  Older students have higher opportunity costs.  Older students are more resentful of coercion.  But there's no reason to think that these problems suddenly jump from trivial to overwhelming during the first summer after high school graduation.

You could say that policymakers' hands are tied by our quaint notion that 18-year-olds are adults, and adults should be free to run their own lives - even if their decisions are demonstrably unwise.  But the law already puts 18-21 year-olds in an intermediate "pre-adult" category - old enough to die in combat, too young to buy beer.  Given this precedent, it's hard to see why policy-makers couldn't further bend the rules by requiring pre-adults to go to college.  Reformers could even sweeten the deal by restoring pre-adults' right to drink... as long as they remain college students in good standing.

My fallback explanation, as usual, is just status quo bias.  People support compulsory K-12 because we have compulsory K-12.  People oppose compulsory college because we don't have compulsory college.  Simple as that.

But perhaps I'm missing something.  If so, please share.

P.S. I'm well-aware that compulsory attendance ages vary somewhat from state-to-state.  The fact remains: Virtually no one in any state favors compulsory college.  This is the fact that demands an explanation.

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Alejandro writes:

I think the answer most people would give is that what is taught at K-12 are either skills that are necessary for for just about any occupation in our society (e.g. math, literacy), or some minimum knowledge that any citizen must have in order to participate responsibly in a democracy (e.g. history, geography, science, civics). By contrast, they would say that college teaches knowledge and skills that are necessary for some occupations, but unnecessary for many others, so requiring everyone to go to college wold be a waste.

(I am not endorsing the answer, just trying to make a plausible guess at what it would be.)

RohanV writes:

I would say that it has more to do with work. 18 is the de facto minimum age you can expect to get full-time work in modern times.

Since you can't reasonably expect a teenage to get full-time work (these days), they have to do something with their time. Essentially school is a substitute for work, and hopefully they learn something useful during that time.

In previous times, when it was easier to get work as a teenager, the emphasis on high school education was lower.

I would say that society follows this general pattern: Children are required to go to school until they are old enough to work. As the minimum working age changes, the amount of mandatory schooling changes to match.

Tom Papworth writes:

Logically, if there is compulsion, it has to end somewhere. Otherwise why not compulsory post-grad; compulsory doctorate etc.

I think the history of state-mandated education is the perpetual creep upward of compulsion. Has the age-limit ever been reduced? If so, how often?

Having said that, there is presumably a consideration that beyond some point, not everybody can/will benefit from further education. Whether this influences where the limit is placed is unclear however.

One final point: at least in the UK, higher ed has remained largely a private-sector affair. That may make govt less willing to compel people to attend than would be the case if the state ran the colleges.

Grieve Chelwa writes:

I haven't looked at the numbers, but perhaps it's cheaper to put someone through K-12 than it is to put someone through college? So compulsory primary & secondary school is an easier sell than compulsory college.

Richard Manns writes:

Surely the comment

"But there's no reason to think that these problems suddenly jump from trivial to overwhelming during the first summer after high school graduation."

is rather facetious, given that we've already implicitly conceded that legal compulsion (at least in theory) is a binary affair, and yet 'becoming an adult' is gradual at best. The resultant line is as arbitrary as banning voting, sex or marriage below a certain age or indeed abortion above a certain age.

Krishnan writes:

No one demands college education ... yet. I fear it is coming. Even as we see the college bubble expand - useless degrees being awarded - grade inflation making it impossible for employers to assess incoming students - I fear we will see even MORE demands for college education - till the bubble collapses. The only question is will the bubble collapse before demands for compulsory college education OR after.

A reason why we may not be seeing demands for compulsory college is that unlike K-12, at the college level, we get students from ALL OVER the world - and a small fraction of those students who graduate have the skills to keep this economy running smoothly. The fact that a majority of the graduates do not have any skills worthy of some employer is masked by the few who do - a small fraction of the kids from US K-12 along with a fraction of the kids from elsewhere graduate with skill sets that keep our economy going.

So, short answer: Immigration is why we do not see demands for compulsory education - our economy has not felt the need to force everyone here to get the necessary skill sets.

Robin Hanson writes:

The babysitting function of school only works if kids are required to go to school, and parents want teens babysat, but not older kids.

MG writes:

You mean, like an individual mandate to attend college?

Yancey Ward writes:

There is no bad idea whose time isn't coming.

John Fembup writes:

Yeabbut why do this? And how?

I think the principal reason not to have compulsory college education is that not nearly enough people care about it or demand it. What does it matter if that results from status quo bias or something else? There are very few voices asking for this.

Why should the general public want to fund college for many more students when many college students seem uninterested or not yet mature enough to take advantage of it? That's not to suggest most college students are indifferent; only to ask why should indifferent students now be required to attend college? Would that change their indifference? If college attendance were mandatory, would it still be permitted to drop out? Would colleges still be permitted to flunk out students for academic (or other) failure? Who will pay for the additional capacity to admit more students whose main incentive is not to gain a college education, but that it's mandatory to attend?

In the absence of public demand, why should Congress care about enacting a college mandate regardless of its merits, if any?

Besides, secondary education is mandatory to roughly age 16. How's that working? Is secondary education in such good shape that we can confidently create a new national priority to mandate college enrollment?

btw, Mortimer Adler long advocated lifetime compulsory education - but only after the normal college ages of roughly 18-23.

Steve Z writes:

Eighteen is the age you can vote.

BZ writes:

I love how many of the comments assume in one way or another that the policy was put in place for carefully thought out and sensible reasons, leaving the specifics of the reason as the only mystery.

So, why is K-12 mandatory: It's a product of a progressive era where High School was the every-mans college of the day, and University attendance so foreign and rare as to be unimaginable. Like all progressive programs, the theory is that you can mandate human perfection and improvement with coercive government force.

Tom West writes:

I think the more interesting question is not:

Why isn't college mandatory when K-12 is?


If we generally acknowledge that post-secondary education is now pretty much necessary to obtain a decent job, what rationale obligates the government to completely pay for K-12 education, but not for post-secondary education?
RPLong writes:

The purpose of mandatory K-12 was to keep kids out of the workforce so that the unions could have all the high-paying factory jobs to themselves.

The reason we don't need to extend that to college anymore is because you can't really get a high-paying job in the US economy without a college degree anymore. (A few minor exceptions aside.)

Floccina writes:

I am always surprised how seldom people argue for raising or lowering the age when one is allowed to drop out of school. And along with that raising or lowering the ages in our child labor laws.

MingoV writes:

I'm one of those few who believe that it is wrong to require formal education at any grade level. Children are not owned by the state. However, children are not owned their parents, either. The balance between parental rights and child rights is difficult to achieve. Most people will agree that parents who refuse to educate their children are neglecting them. Children who are not sent to school should undergo testing* at regular intervals to ensure adequate education. Children who do not pass will be required to attend a state-approved school or be taught at home by government-approved private tutors.

*Such testing would be adjusted for low IQ children.

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Simple: too costly. Not enough existing capacity.

But we are headed in this direction.

And this is a big problem, just like when K-12 was made compulsory -- and when it really happened, academic standards went down dramatically. Look at math standards before and after desegregation in the south. Everyone, including poor whites, forced social promotion AND a watered down curriculum. As teachers from that era will tell you, "We never caught up after that." Just kept falling further and further behind. Not too long ago in Alabama, high schools students were taking EOC exams that even their teachers could not pass.

ThomasH writes:

Status quo bias. Sort of like the reason we ended up with Romney-Obamacare rather than a single payer or the Swiss system.

Tracy W writes:

I think the current school leaving age is too high. Teenagers' brains are more independent than children's and thus it's much harder to make them learn anything they don't want to. (Kids are easier to fool by things like the Teacher-Me game, where if the kids fail to answer questions correctly the teacher "wins".)
The difficulties of forcing learning on adults is even harder.

But there is a bit of a reason for linking compulsory learning to before legal adulthood - if a child's parents prefer their kid to not go to school and instead say stay home and care for younger children but the child wants to attend then they are more able to ignore their parents' requests once a legal adult. I left home and started uni at age 17 and even with my dad signing things and generally cooperating it was a hassle until I turned 18.

Roger Sweeny writes:

"We must save children from being forced to work full time."

"We can't leave children to the streets."

Put those two together and you wind up with laws restricting young people's working and laws forcing young people to go to school.

The details, including the exact ages, will be a matter of history, but some ages in the teens are probably inevitable if policy-makers believe those two things.

(I don't think this is inconsistent with Robin Hanson's post.)

Arthur_500 writes:

Ooh, what to teach? Where can I get the teaching job? What a boon for government employees.

Of course this all has to do with the current situation in public as well as pseudo-private education. The result is poor quality education at high cost.

We all seem to understand reading, writing and arithmetic but the schools haven't figured out how to teach it. But the Public expects we provide basic education.

Why can't a math teacher figure out that some students need to understand angles in order to be a carpenter but are unable to teach geometry in any applied manner? Why is it that teachers haven't figured out that reading a car magazine or fashion magazine is just as much a part of reading as Virginia Woolf?

Now we get to college where teachers go through a pre-described program and learn little. Accountants must receive five years of college; a Practical Nurse must have a doctorate - the list goes on and on as to how college is required and little results are shown.

We don't want to pull the plug on our little children but we aren't going to force someone to endure the financial hardship of college.

Anyway as they said in the TV Sitcom Dinosaurs, "You don't go to school to learn, you go to get out of the house."

Kitty_T writes:

I suspect status quo bias is most of the explanation, but I also suspect that, even if one got past that, the cost would make it prohibitive. After all, if college is publicly mandated, the presumption would be that it would have to be publicly provided, and how would we structure the taxes to cover that? Would it be local like K-12, or federal, or what? And what chance is there of anyone agreeing effectively to pay for everyone else's kids' college? Would there be a cap on the amount covered, would publicly funded colleges be required to accept that as full payment, and if so how fast would the perceived gap between the quality of public vs. private university educations grow?

That being said, the assumption that publicly mandated education is publicly funded is also just status quo bias. Perhaps the Obamacare individual mandate would be a precedent in the other direction.

JKB writes:

Mostly because so many 18-20 year olds find useful things to do instead of milling about in college. There are actors, athletes, musicians, etc. Plus, those who go into the trades, the military. And do we really want to force the individuals who create all the great new technology to linger in college based on some bureaucrats idea of innovation?

And what would be on the CGED, College Graduate Equivalency exam? We'd need a competency test to show student actually learned what the transcript indicates. That certainly would get rid of the professor vanity courses. If college is mandatory, then the course of study is a issue for public determination.

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