Earlier this week, PolicyMic*‘s Zak Cheney-Rice wrote a piece that highlights a comic about America’s education system. In point of fact, this one:

Nordic Countries Education

Cheney-Rice adds onto the comic that American colleges and universities collected $62.6 billion in 2012, yet America chooses to spend that amount of money and more on things like the War on Drugs, intervention in Afghanistan, and prisons.

A perfect example of mixed priorities, right? Well, kinda. First, the assertion that we could make education free for a mere $62.6 billion dollars shows some serious misunderstanding about how higher education in the United States works.

If it became the case that the government guaranteed a positive right to a college education, a few things would happen that would be disastrous for higher education itself: First, the demand for a college education would increase dramatically such that a college degree would become the new base-level education. We are already seeing this trend in the Untied States since the passage of the GI Bill, which made college accessible to whole flocks of people for whom it wasn’t before.

The result is that having a college education is now more a “requirement” than an extra. The edge having a Bachelor’s once gave people in finding a job is almost gone, now people “have” to have a Bachelor’s to enter the middle class.

Second, prices would skyrocket. When higher education is a requirement rather than an extra, the demand for it shoots up, and, much like they are doing in the healthcare system now, when the government guarantees that they will pay for something, the providers of that service can charge practically whatever they want because the government will foot the bill. We are also seeing this trend in higher education since the passage of the GI bill.

This means that the government simply paying a $62.6 billion bill would only be the beginning. In fact, such a free college program was instituted in the U.S. state of Georgia in the mid-90s, and still exists today, except that it has been scaled back due to rising costs.

More to the point, comparing national spending on something like the military with education, which is handled on a state level, is a rather large misdirection.While it is true that the United States does not have a free education system writ large, many states do offer cheap if not free higher education to their citizens. The state-level costs of higher education are not accounted for here.

Part of the reason for the nation’s rising national student loan debt is that students opt for more expensive private schools** because the quality of education, quality of life, and experience are often much better than at state public schools (depending on the school). Make no mistake: American students are in so much debt because they chose to be.

Finally, for those looking to implement a Nordic-type plan on the United States, please think twice. While even as it may seem that the system works for them (and perhaps it does—depending on what metric you’re looking at), you can’t just plop one culture’s system onto another’s  and expect it to work. Denmark and the other Nordic countries do have an expansive welfare states, but these states are also supported by economies that are and have been much more free and prosperous than the United States’.

They have low corporate taxes and less regulation (something that I think the Occupiers would greatly dislike). These countries are much smaller than ours and have relatively homogenous populations, which makes for a much more stable, socially cohesive environment (PDF). They have low corruption in their governments and high transparency. These factors make a significant difference in how a large government bureaucracy can run. The United States does not have those luxuries.

And, in fact, America’s record of federal intervention in education is fairly poor to begin with. Federal implementation of the GI bill and universal federal loans have caused college costs to jump out of their chairs, and while federal (and state) spending on education has hockey-sticked, performance has stagnated.

In the end, America’s solutions to its education problems need to be America’s. We have a unique culture, people, and history that all shape how our policies work best. Though we can and should always learn from the successes of other societies, we must remember that their needs are not our needs, and what works best for us is going to be specifically tailored to us.


*Full disclosure: I am an Arts & Entertainment columnist at PolicyMic.

**Full disclosure: I attended a private college in lieu of a state college, which would have paid for my tuition under the HOPE scholarship. I graduated with low $20Ks in debt.