Higher education’s bubble is about to burst

Friday, June 11, 2010
By Paul Martin

By: Glenn Harlan Reynolds
WashingtonExaminer.com

It’s a story of an industry that may sound familiar.

The buyers think what they’re buying will appreciate in value, making them rich in the future. The product grows more and more elaborate, and more and more expensive, but the expense is offset by cheap credit provided by sellers eager to encourage buyers to buy.

Buyers see that everyone else is taking on mounds of debt, and so are more comfortable when they do so themselves; besides, for a generation, the value of what they’re buying has gone up steadily. What could go wrong? Everything continues smoothly until, at some point, it doesn’t.

Yes, this sounds like the housing bubble, but I’m afraid it’s also sounding a lot like a still-inflating higher education bubble. And despite (or because of) the fact that my day job involves higher education, I think it’s better for us to face up to what’s going on before the bubble bursts messily.

College has gotten a lot more expensive. A recent Money magazine report notes: “After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. … Normal supply and demand can’t begin to explain cost increases of this magnitude.”

Consumers would balk, except for two things.

First — as with the housing bubble — cheap and readily available credit has let people borrow to finance education. They’re willing to do so because of (1) consumer ignorance, as students (and, often, their parents) don’t fully grasp just how harsh the impact of student loan payments will be after graduation; and (2) a belief that, whatever the cost, a college education is a necessary ticket to future prosperity.

Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already.

A New York Times profile last week described Courtney Munna, a 26-year-old graduate of New York University with nearly $100,000 in student loan debt — debt that her degree in Religious and Women’s Studies did not equip her to repay. Payments on the debt are about $700 per month, equivalent to a respectable house payment, and a major bite on her monthly income of $2,300 as a photographer’s assistant earning an hourly wage.

And, unlike a bad mortgage on an underwater house, Munna can’t simply walk away from her student loans, which cannot be expunged in a bankruptcy. She’s stuck in a financial trap.

Some might say that she deserves it — who borrows $100,000 to finance a degree in women’s and religious studies that won’t make you any money? She should have wised up, and others should learn from her mistake, instead of learning too late, as she did: “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life slaving away to pay for an education I got for four years and would happily give back.”

But bubbles burst when people catch on, and there’s some evidence that people are beginning to catch on. Student loan demand, according to a recent report in the Washington Post, is going soft, and students are expressing a willingness to go to a cheaper school rather than run up debt. Things haven’t collapsed yet, but they’re looking shakier — kind of like the housing market looked in 2007.

So what happens if the bubble collapses? Will it be a tragedy, with millions of Americans losing their path to higher-paying jobs?

Maybe not. College is often described as a path to prosperity, but is it? A college education can help people make more money in three different ways.

First, it may actually make them more economically productive by teaching them skills valued in the workplace: Computer programming, nursing or engineering, say. (Religious and women’s studies, not so much.)

Second, it may provide a credential that employers want, not because it represents actual skills, but because it’s a weeding tool that doesn’t produce civil-rights suits as, say, IQ tests might. A four-year college degree, even if its holder acquired no actual skills, at least indicates some ability to show up on time and perform as instructed.

And, third, a college degree — at least an elite one — may hook its holder up with a useful social network that can provide jobs and opportunities in the future. (This is more true if it’s a degree from Yale than if it’s one from Eastern Kentucky, but it’s true everywhere to some degree).

While an individual might rationally pursue all three of these, only the first one — actual added skills — produces a net benefit for society. The other two are just distributional — about who gets the goodies, not about making more of them.

Yet today’s college education system seems to be in the business of selling parts two and three to a much greater degree than part one, along with selling the even-harder-to-quantify “college experience,” which as often as not boils down to four (or more) years of partying.

Post-bubble, perhaps students — and employers, not to mention parents and lenders — will focus instead on education that fosters economic value. And that is likely to press colleges to focus more on providing useful majors. (That doesn’t necessarily rule out traditional liberal-arts majors, so long as they are rigorous and require a real general education, rather than trendy and easy subjects, but the key word here is “rigorous.”)

My question is whether traditional academic institutions will be able to keep up with the times, or whether — as Anya Kamenetz suggests in her new book, “DIY U” — the real pioneering will be in online education and the work of “edupunks” who are more interested in finding new ways of teaching and learning than in protecting existing interests.

I’m betting on the latter. Industries seldom reform themselves, and real competition usually comes from the outside. Keep your eyes open — and, if you’re planning on applying to college, watch out for those student loans.

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