Why Not Compulsory College?
By Bryan Caplan
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.