This election cycle, liberal Democrats are rallying around the idea of socialized higher education. Democratic socialist firebrand Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is leading the charge, of course, but she’s far from alone. As Politico reports, many Democrats are embracing Bernie Sanders’ mantra of “free college” on the campaign trail.
Liberals who want to make college free have good intentions, and there certainly was a time when a college degree offered the most reliable ticket to success. But times have changed. Today, plans for free college are threatening to make the next generation less entrepreneurial.
Entrepreneurship, of course, requires time devoted to imagining and dreaming—time today’s students simply don’t have. Many spend every minute trying to build a résumé that will usher them into the best colleges. In The Coddling of the American Mind, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Foundation for Individual Rights in Education president Greg Lukianoff argue that, for the last two decades, parents have overscheduled their children to their detriment. To make sure college applications shine, they fill up kids’ time with supervised activities, eroding the hours they need to enjoy playing and simply being young. When you have school, then piano recital, then soccer practice, then choir, then homework, then bed, it’s tough to find time to go skateboarding with your friends. That isn’t a good thing.
According to Haidt and Lukianoff, iGen—the generation born during or after 1995—“spends less time going out with friends [and] more time interacting with parents” than previous generations.
But unsupervised playtime is how children develop entrepreneurial instincts. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, notes, “Free play and exploration are, historically, the means by which children learn to solve their own problems [and] control their own lives.” This kind of play forces them to handle disputes on their own, to take initiative and decide what to do in different situations, and to learn to cope when things don’t go their way. By achieving goals like climbing tall trees, children take risks and enjoy the payoffs from small doses of danger.
Besides robbing young people of free play, our societal fixation on college leaves them in fear of failure. The competitiveness of the college admissions process encourages students to do what psychologists call “catastrophize”: that is, to make something out to be far worse than it actually is. A “B” in middle school can seem like a disaster that it really isn’t, because it might mean the student can’t take Advanced Placement Calculus as a freshman and won’t get into Stanford. And when parents panic, children do too.
But catastrophizing is dangerous for future entrepreneurs. People who turn every failure into Armageddon are ill-equipped to deal with the bumpy road of starting a company. Indeed, many successful entrepreneurs have failed before. Henry Ford’s first business, the Detroit Automobile Company, went belly-up within a year and a half. Any new venture carries risk, be it an innovative social media platform or a never-before-seen technology. Do we really want the next generation to be terrified of failure?
It might be too late for iGen, whose members are already less entrepreneurial than previous generations. A survey of half a million high school seniors found that only 31 percent of students in 2015 said that they would like to be self-employed—compared to 46 percent of students in 1985.
Our national emphasis on college is not worth all the effort anyway. While some college programs provide a lot of value and push up the aggregate earnings of graduates, many are a waste of four years. Only 39 percent of managers say that students are ready for the workforce. More than half of liberal arts majors work in jobs that don’t require their degrees. As The Atlantic put it in 2016, “Is there really a Millennial underemployment crisis? Yes, but only among liberal-arts majors.”
If we want to preserve our country’s historic reputation as a world leader in technology and innovation, then we need to stop pushing every young person to go to college and crowding out their childhoods. We’re filling up so much of kids’ time with extracurriculars and studying that they don’t have time to play—and without play, it’s harder to develop the self-starter instincts and resilience of an entrepreneur. In a dynamic global economy, our young people deserve better than a one-size-fits-all education plan.
Julian Adorney is a Young Voices contributor. He has written for Playboy, National Review, and The Federalist. He blogs at The Empathetic Libertarian.