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Higher Ed Jumps The Shark

There are many things American higher ed does very well, but providing job-related training at a reasonable price isn’t one of them.  The explosive growth of higher ed costs (driven by factors including administrative bloat and mission creep, government mandates, the guild system for faculty, and a fixation on the research university model) combined with the recession has brought the system to a point where the subject of radical change can no longer be avoided.

In a Sunday piece in the Washington Examiner, law professor Glenn Reynolds (better known in the blogosphere as the indefatigable Instapundit) makes some important points about how the system could change.  Reynolds makes some thoughtful practical suggestions, and also gets right to the heart of a problem that goes farther than higher ed:

When you artificially pump up the supply of something (whether it’s currency or diplomas), the value drops. The reason why a bachelor’s degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability is that the government decided that as many people as possible should have bachelor’s degrees.There’s something of a pattern here. The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle class people.

But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay in, the middle class.

Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them. One might as well try to promote basketball skills by distributing expensive sneakers.

Professional basketball players have expensive sneakers, but — TV commercials notwithstanding — it’s not the shoes that make them good at dunking.

If the government really wants to encourage people to achieve, and maintain, middle-class status, it should be encouraging things like self-discipline and the ability to defer gratification. But that’s not how politics works.

Read the whole thing, and reflect.  Government spending to “support the middle class” has burgeoned in recent decades, and the American middle class is falling apart.  Something is badly out of whack.

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  • Anthony

    WRM, Americans (some) are still searching for markers; now, that’s something to inquire about….

    A few observations: the author posits that the government decided that as many people as possible should have a BA (I missed that mandate but perceived economic dividend for vested interest); secondly, education is a civic good and, mandate or not, our county benefits from a more informed and educated citizenry – author implies purpose of education is job (certainly questionable); thirdly, there is implication in article that university learning = economic apprenticeship (overall market equivalence perhaps overwrought); finally, inferred premise that middle class American lifestyle preferred model and government aspires majority of its citizens to said lifestyle via BA aquisition is certainly hasty generalization.

    Nevtheless, author’s proposal on school loans – dischargeable after 5 years with school obligated for unpaid balance worthy suggestion; equally, recognition that we need people who make things – inference college is not for everyone – similarly worthy as well as highlighting importance of “adaptability.”

  • Will

    I think a lot of higher education bloat reflects failing at other levels of education along with the credential inflation notes above. What hasn’t been taught in K-12 gets passed on to colleges below the highly selective level, and that applies particularly to writing and math. Being middle class in terms of career and social opportunities requires a college degree in something. Both these factors, plus access to funding, push unprepared and fundamentally uninterested young people through a system that has ballooned. How then do we make college less necessary so people can take other options without seeming to embrace downward social mobility.

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