Reynolds’ Law: “Subsidizing the markers of status doesn’t produce the character traits that result in that status; it undermines them.”
As an example, the theory goes, if owning your own home is one of the indicators of middle class people then subsidizing home ownership will make more people middle class. The problem is one of cause and effect. Home ownership is a signal of belonging to the middle class, not a cause. The fact of owning a home doesn't address the values and character traits that make people middle class; things like hard work and thrift.
In education I've been seeing this for years. Consider the following:
"Since college graduates make more money, we should endeavor to have more people go to college."
Let's ignore, for now, the fact that just going to college doesn't make you a college graduate. You also have to get through four years of what used to be a fairly rigorous study program. Instead let's focus on the original statement.
"college graduates make more money"
Why? Because they went to college or because they are the kind of people who go into difficult fields which pay more but require more education? Or is it just that anyone who happens to go to college will by default make more money?
If the former, then shunting people into college won't make a difference unless they are the kind of people who would have gone anyway. Going to college, just by itself, will not increase your income. It is the motivation and the drive to excel in a difficult field that does that.
"Subsidizing" grades to get more students into college, subsidizing the cost of college to get more children into college, and pushing every student to go to college, no matter how unprepared or uninterested they are will not raise their earnings. Obtaining an easy college degree of the kind that wouldn't necessarily result in higher earnings (assuming you even finish college rather than drop out because you were uninterested), will not increase your income. In fact, when you consider the cost of college you may come out behind in the deal. We've all heard about the guy who has a Master's Degree in Puppetry and complained that he is burdened with debt and can't find a good paying job. (If you haven't, it's a real person. He was in the news during the whole Occupy movement.)
I had never heard of Reynold's Law until today when I stumbled across it in an article, but it simplifies and explains what I have been thinking about this push to universal college over the past few years.