In the field of higher education, reality is outrunning parody, Glenn Reynolds says:
A recent feature on the satire website the Onion proclaimed, “30-Year-Old Has Earned $11 More Than He Would Have Without College Education.” Allowing for tuition, interest on student loans, and four years of foregone income while in school, the fictional student “Patrick Moorhouse” wasn’t much better off. His years of stress and study, the article japed, “have been more or less a financial wash.”
“Patrick” shouldn’t feel too bad. Many college graduates would be happy to be $11 ahead instead of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, behind. The credit-driven higher education bubble of the past several decades has left legions of students deep in debt without improving their job prospects. To make college a good value again, today’s parents and students need to be skeptical, frugal and demanding. There is no single solution to what ails higher education in the U.S., but changes are beginning to emerge, from outsourcing to online education, and they could transform the system.
Though the GI Bill converted college from a privilege of the rich to a middle-class expectation, the higher education bubble really began in the 1970s, as colleges that had expanded to serve the baby boom saw the tide of students threatening to ebb. Congress came to the rescue with federally funded student aid, like Pell Grants and, in vastly greater dollar amounts, student loans.
Predictably enough, this financial assistance led colleges and universities to raise tuition and fees to absorb the resources now available to their students. As University of Michigan economics and finance professor Mark Perry has calculated, tuition for all universities, public and private, increased from 1978 to 2011 at an annual rate of 7.45%. By comparison, health-care costs increased by only 5.8%, and housing, notwithstanding the bubble, increased at 4.3%. Family incomes, on the other hand, barely kept up with the consumer-price index, which grew at an annual rate of 3.8%.
For many families, the gap between soaring tuition costs and stagnant incomes was filled by debt. Today’s average student debt of $29,400 may not sound overwhelming, but many students, especially at private and out-of-state colleges, end up owing much more, often more than $100,000. At the same time, four in 10 college graduates, according to a recent Gallup study, wind up in jobs that don’t require a college degree.
Students and parents have started to reject this unsustainable arrangement, and colleges and universities have felt the impact. According to a recent analysis by this newspaper, private schools are facing a long-term decline in enrollment.