ABCs to ATMs - The Case for Paying Students to Learn

Socialism in Education: Merit over Handouts

People sometimes think that paying students is a form of socialism. Maybe it would be if you paid them to just show up to school and sit there, doing nothing. But when you expect someone to work in order to be paid, it is pure capitalism.

With respect to the various forms of government in the world and how they define their economic aspirations, I do think it needs to be clearly stated that paying people for work, instead of forcing them to work for free, strongly aligns with values in free, open nations that tend towards capitalism and free markets. 

The Philosophical Underpinnings: Meritocracy Over Redistributive Handouts

The core tenet of capitalism is the concept of meritocracy: the idea that rewards are accrued based on individual performance and effort. The proposition of paying students to learn aligns seamlessly with this principle. Far from a socialist redistribution of wealth, this model is a capitalistic meritocracy in its purest form. Students are not merely given money; they earn it through demonstrable mastery of skills and knowledge. This is akin to any performance-based payment system in the corporate world, a foundation stone of capitalistic economies. The system, therefore, serves as a microcosm of the larger capitalistic framework, teaching students the value of hard work, the importance of specialized skills, and the benefits of competitive excellence from a young age.

The Market of Knowledge: Commoditizing Education

If capitalism is about creating markets, then paying students for their educational achievements creates a new, dynamic market for knowledge. In this market, education is not just an abstract concept but a tangible asset with real-world value. This reframing commoditizes education and makes it a part of the free market. Students become knowledge entrepreneurs, incentivized to invest in their own human capital because there is now a clear, immediate ROI (Return on Investment). This also opens up new avenues for educational investment from private sectors, further driving the cycle of competition and innovation that is central to capitalism.

Righting Historical Wrongs: The Unpaid Labor of Learning

For more than a century, the conventional educational system has operated on the premise that students should be grateful for the opportunity to learn, regardless of the immense effort and time they invest. This is a stark contrast to capitalistic principles, where labor is compensated. Students have been the unpaid labor force of an educational system that benefits society at large. They contribute to scientific research, community service, and even produce art and literature, often without direct compensation. Paying students for learning is a rectification of this historical oversight, aligning the educational system more closely with the labor market and the principles of capitalism.

A similar thing just happend in college athletics.  On July 1, 2021,the restriction that student athletes could not receive benefits was lifted. For more than a century, students had been forced to play for the love of the game while society and the colleges benefited. Athletes risked injury and did an amazing amount of work to be elite athletes, and could not recieve benefits. And let’s face it, sports are more fun than math for most people.

We need to stop exploiting students just because they are minors.  If we want students to do the work, they need to be paid.   Because students are paid for their learning at a young age and because it is results-driven, the students entering the job market in the future will be the most hard-working people in many generations.

Strengthening the Future Labor Market: A Competitive, Skilled Workforce

Finally, by tying financial incentives to educational outcomes, we’re not just rewarding merit in the short term; we’re laying the groundwork for a more competitive labor market in the long term. A more educated workforce is a more productive workforce. In a global economy where skills are the new currency, this model serves to elevate the labor market to new heights of competitiveness and specialization. Businesses benefit from a pool of candidates who are not just academically qualified but have also demonstrated the work ethic required to earn their qualifications. This fosters a more dynamic, competitive, and ultimately more productive form of capitalism.

In summary, far from promoting a form of socialism, paying students to learn enriches the fabric of capitalism by introducing merit-based incentives at the foundational level of human development. It aligns the educational system with the principles of a free market economy, corrects historical imbalances, and promises a more competitive labor market.

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Ron McDaniel
Author of “ABCs to ATMs”