Sunday, June 13, 2010


Glenn Reynolds has linked recently to essays about the higher education bubble. Fascinating topic, certainly, especially for those of us who grew up with the plan of four-year liberal arts college always assumed, and who brought up our children with the same assumption. Though in our case, what we assumed for our first two was much more debateable for the boys from Romania, sons three and four. Son #5's path is still yet to be determined.

First heresy: Did the GI Bill ultimately create this higher ed bubble? What had been a seldom-attainable opportunity for most Americans in the 1930's became a real possibility in the 1950's, and by the 1960's and 70's, it was simply assumed if you were above-average in either grades or socioeconomic status, you were going to college. Hard-core free-marketers always claim that government subsidies distort markets and are a bad thing. But the GI Bill is one of those few places where everyone seemed to agree that we all got a lot more back than we put in, both for individuals and the nation as a whole. What if now, 50 years later, it has brought forth this crisis which will have implications for every cohort born after 1985 until the situation stabilizes? My Dad went to school on the GI Bill, as did a lot of other Dads who came off the farm or out of the poorer neighborhoods. We've always called that a major positive for American families. Was it?

Heresy #2: There is also a lot of ink being spilled about schools being increasingly designed against boy-abilities and toward girl-style learning. Recently, the decreasing number of males in college, a trend continuing into graduate school, is seen as a demographic problem for men getting jobs and women finding suitable partners. Perhaps that is not coincidence that this questioning of the actual value of four-year degrees in general, and many areas of study in particular, is occuring at the same time. Parents who have dragged sons through girl-school with much wailing and gnashing of teeth may have been much more hesitant to send them off to four more years, this time at $40K or more per year.

Perhaps the boys are leading, on the cutting edge of job-preparation for the future, not lagging. The crunch is going to come around issues of credentialing - which of course means that special-interest groups pressuring government is going to determine a great deal of where the new economy goes - and what happens to males in particular.

Related: I started opining 20 years ago that feminist resentment was largely driven by women who had followed the directions and played by the rules, excelling in school - which was considered the automatic qualifier to success. We were all told To get a good job, get a good education, not just the girls. Then they left school and found that there were other, less-familiar laws of the marketplace which had seldom been mentioned. Heck, I felt the same way. Those boys and young men they had beaten, beaten fair and square at school, were finding all these other routes to success. Some, such as good-old-boy networks and discrimination, could be systematically attacked and removed. But some of these other routes were perfectly fair and legitimate strategies of their own - fooling around with computer stuff; selling things, repairing things, coaching people. I think that division is even more pronounced now. A sea-change is already occurring, though we don't know where those currents will take us.

Terri, I am thinking of the age of your boys, and expecting that the ground will look different for them when they are 18 than you thought it would when they were born. The outlines of where this is all headed, and what real choices they have, may be clearer in ten years. I am more worried for my own youngest, just entering highschool. I don't know if we'll be able to read the trends in time.


Kurt said...

I think you might be right about the GI Bill. One could say that the GI Bill begat the baby boomers in more ways than one. And the baby boomers are in large part responsible for the feminization of higher education that you describe.

I can also understand the resentment you theorize as having partially fueled the feminist movement. I think that resentment overlaps heavily with what you have elsewhere described as the "arts and humanities tribe" and explains why so many of the members of that "tribe" are so left-wing.

Still, it seems to me that there is another factor at play here in the mass media, as well, and I would trace that back to a period in the early 80s, a few years before I left for college. Starting in the early 80s, the number of college guides (such as the New York Times College Guide and the Yale Daily News College Guide) and books about admission and even SAT prep courses (Kaplan and other services had been around for years, but the highly successful Princeton Review was established in 1981, and it began to change the game) began to proliferate, and US News issued its first college rankings in 1983. All of these things increased the visibility of the admissions process and made elite colleges more of a visible commodity.

As a result, admissions became even more competitive at the most elite schools, and tuition increases were easy to justify on the basis of the demand for a limited product. But this had a trickle down effect on the economics of higher education generally as schools concerned about their place in the academic pecking order strove to match what the wealthier schools were offering. This increased costs and increased tuition, but even in this there was a perverse cost pressure in the implicit recognition that while they could charge less than the elite schools, they didn't want to charge too little lest they be judged as providing an inferior education.

In other words, while I think the factors you describe all played a role, what really made the bubble take off was the increased role of marketing and mass media in promoting a certain vision of a particular kind of higher education as the most desirable product.

David Foster said...

Very often, a bubble is about a phenomenon that was economically and socially useful in its early stages, but is escalated to insane and destructive levels. The railway-building booms in the US and Britain, for example, had enormous positive impact at first. But more and more promoters go into the act, wanting to build a railway from somewhere to somewhere, even as the universe of available and meaningful somewheres that didn't already have rail connections diminished. Similar dynamics for the more recent dot-com boom. But in both cases, we were better off building out the railroads and the Internet, even though there was a lot of waste in the later phases.

So the GI Bill was not a mistake, even given our current virtually-insane education bubble. The leading cause of problems, after all, is solutions..

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Kurt, having finished college in '75, and not paying attention again until the mid-90's, I hadn't even thought of the college ranking phenomenon and its effect.

Sit tight, BTW. You figure prominently in the Faux Pas post coming up.

David also - that principle of early advantage, diminishing returns is also an upcoming post on regulation.

jaed said...

Did the GI Bill ultimately create this higher ed bubble?

I think three things:

1. Griggs vs Duke Power. This case made it legally risky to use testing to sort job candidates (it was an employment discrimination case), and so almost everyone stopped doing that and started using educational qualifications instead for entry-level positions. You can get into legal trouble for giving job candidates an IQ test (because there are statistical differences in IQ between racial groups), but not for requiring a bachelor's degree.

Because of this, a degree became a minimum qualification for many jobs that don't actually require college-level academic work. If you want a good job (defined as one you can advance from, that pays well, and that isn't too physically taxing to continue all your working life), you need to go to college.

2. Sputnik. When Sputnik launched, it caused a mass freakout (if you'll pardon the linguistic anachronism) among Americans. Were we falling behind scientifically? Did we need to pay for more research and education?

The result was that the federal government became by far the largest funder of university research. This caused all kinds of problems down the line. (First research was emphasized over teaching - "publish or perish" - throwing the traditional balance between teaching and research into the trash can, and making research the sine qua non of tenure and status, with professors reluctant to teach undergraduates [no status there!] and excellent teachers devalued. More recently, research has been de-emphasized in favor of grant acquisition. The ideal used to be the balanced teacher/scholar; then it was the Nobel-winning researcher with hordes of grad student slaves; now it's the administrator and rainmaker with his or her own famous lab. Soon both teaching and research will be ancillary functions farmed out to temporary personnel. In some ways the American university is there already.)

...where was I before I started ranting... oh, research and the feds. The stream of government research grants meant that the universities had a massive cash flow unrelated to students or to teaching. Over time, this took power away from faculty and moved it into administration. Much of the growth in college costs is in administrative salaries; these people are often highly paid and require much in the way of support staff. To a great extent faculty have been starved to pay for administrators. This is an aspect of the bubble because it greatly magnifies costs per student.

jaed said...

3. Federally guaranteed student loans. The ability of a student to borrow money is effectively unlimited by projected earning power or common sense. Since the loans are guaranteed, banks had neither reason nor mandate to consider these things when lending money, and the limits just kept going up. So colleges could keep increasing tuition; after all, students were willing to pay via student loans. And no one was talking much to the students about how they'd pay them back. All the students and their parents knew was that a degree was a necessity for a successful middle-class life. Tuition went up so the loan limits went up so there was a pile of cash to be taken so tuition went up. And this went on for decades.

If college expenses weren't funded this way - if students worked their way through college, and ordinary parents saved for their children's education - this situation would have collapsed into something more sustainable long ago, because it is no longer possible for ordinary people to pay for college through these means. We end up with a necessary credential for solid middle-class-hood, which costs a ton, largely because it's paying for assorted drones and amenities along with the actual cost of providing instruction, and whose actual value is falling because the education you get is not as good. (For a variety of reasons; many students take a degree in "studies" instead of in an academic discipline; most instruction is done by adjuncts and grad students instead of professors; and it's harder to run an excellent class with students from the top 50% than with students from the top 10%.)

Add it all up, and higher education is worth less and less while costing more and more.

terri said...

AVI...I just had a discussion about this thing about a month ago at another blog.

A few points..

The overabundance of women with degrees, in comparison with men, can be somewhat explained by looking at what subject most of those degrees are in. Most of them would fall into traditionally female stereotypes of nurse, teacher, social worker, humanities..etc. Which is not to say that women can't, or don't, get degrees in the hard sciences or business fields. They do...but those sectors tend to be more evenly balanced, or predominately male.

For women, getting a degree has become a necessity if one wants to earn a decent paycheck or move outside of unskilled labor.

Men, on the other hand, have the possibility of skilled trades. A plumber, electrician, tile-setter, contractor, etc....can make a ton of money without having to go the way of a 4-year degree.

Women could do this also...but very few women stop and actually consider the possibility. Although, the last time I had my air conditioner serviced it was done by a woman and the tile worker I used on my dad's house was a woman working with her husband....but it was clear she was the one running things. So, women can take that path....but most don't.

As for my children. I have no clue what they'll want to do. Although my husband and I are both well-educated and both of our kids are super-smart....I would be open to them choosing a career path that wasn't academic/professional. The Rationalist is quite mechanical and The Intuitive is sure he wants to be some sort of biologist/entomologist/animal studier and wrangler. His plan for the future involves moving to Canada, having a pack of huskies and working in the forest.

I have a cousin who is a park ranger....maybe that's what he'll do.

I think that for most young people higher education is a confusing thing. Some people go that way purely because they think they'll earn more money with a degree. Some people go that way simply for the prestige of being "educated"...though I think a lot of people don't realize that's part of their motivation.

Higher Education will reach a saturation point beyond which it will lose most of its power.

When I first graduated from college and started looking for a job, being constantly rejected because i had no really anything other than being smart in school...I realized how important internships, apprenticeships, and experiences were.

A secretary in an office could gain more skill in a particular business over four years and climb up the ladder and know more about what the heck she/he was doing than I could having just walked out of college with a BA.

It was a revelation to me.

I think liberal arts will eventually go the way of the dinosaur, giving way to practical training and skill-based learning. Eventually the only people who'll study the Humanities will be the people who really want to and hardly anyone will be forced to sit through 2 years of gen ed. credits about Western Civ., World Literature, History...etc......just so they can become a chemist or pathologist.

In a way that would be sad, which shows my bias, but I think it will happen.

Der Hahn said...

Men, on the other hand, have the possibility of skilled trades. A plumber, electrician, tile-setter, contractor, etc....can make a ton of money without having to go the way of a 4-year degree.

This is true, though to a lesser degree, of tech fields as well. I'm a bit odd in our IT shop since I have a four-year degree in Computer Science. The vast majority either have a tech school degree, OJT, or a bachelors in something other than computer programming. My boss was a music major, for example, and my ex-wife's husband was just short of a master's in comparative religion when he started doing computer work. My son, despite having only a GED, was a supervisor leading a team of technicians in a call center at 21. (He's since moved on to another company).

David Foster said...

"A secretary in an office could gain more skill in a particular business over four years and climb up the ladder and know more about what the heck she/he was doing than I could having just walked out of college with a BA"

Secretaries have become...not quite extinct, but pretty rare, except for those who are "executive assistants" to fairly high-level execs. This has had a couple of downsides...first, secretaries did a lot of organizational coordination in addition to typing, copying, etc, and removal of this function has increased the general chaos level in many organizations. Second, it has removed a career path for bright people (usually women) with a high-school education. I've seen organizations in which there were jobs being done by "elite" college graduates that could have been very well done by any of several secretaries (with high-school degrees) who have worked for me.