Popping the Higher Education Bubble
Glenn Harlan Reynolds
The economist Herbert Stein once said that something that can’t go on forever, won’t. That observation, sometimes called Stein’s Law, could well turn out to be the theme for the current decade. But nowhere is it truer than in higher education. American higher education is first in the world, but it can’t go on forever on its current path.
Colleges are raising tuition and fees every year, at a rate of increase that far outpaces any reasonable expectation. One might think this is the kind of thing that couldn’t continue forever, but that’s precisely what has been happening over the past several decades. Prices have gone up, and buyers have poured in anyway, buoyed by a flood of seemingly cheap government money in the form of student loans.
As with any bubble, there are doomsayers who are mostly ignored and cheerleaders who say that this time it’s different. But—as with any bubble—reality is starting to intrude.
Though people have been talking about a bubble in higher education for a while, one major indicator that the swelling is approaching its limit was found in last year’s Occupy protests. While the protesters represented a diverse array of grievances, one common thread was that many had run up huge student loan debts for degrees that weren’t capable of generating sufficient income to make the payments.
At an annual growth rate of 7.45 percent, tuition has vastly outstripped both the consumer price index and health care inflation (see chart). The growth in home prices during the housing bubble looks like a mere bump in the road by comparison. For many years, parents could look to increased home values to make them feel better about paying Junior’s tuition—the so-called “wealth effect,” in which increases in asset values make people more comfortable about spending. Or at least they could borrow tuition costs against the equity in their homes. But that equity is gone now, and tuition marches on.
So where does that leave us? Even students who major in programs shown to increase earnings, such as engineering, face limits to how much debt they can sanely amass. With costs exceeding $60,000 a year for many private schools, and out-of-state costs at many state schools exceeding $40,000 (and often closing in on $30,000 for in-state students), some people are graduating with debt loads of $100,000 or more. Sometimes much more.
That’s dangerous. And the problem is not a small one: According to the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of student-loan debtors now actually equals the number of people with college degrees. How is this possible? “First, huge numbers of those borrowing money never graduate from college,” Vedder explains. “Second, many who borrow are not in baccalaureate degree programs. Third, people take forever to pay their loans back.”
Total student loan debt in America has passed the trillion-dollar mark. That’s more than total credit card debt and more than total auto loan debt. Students graduating with heavy burdens of student loan debt must choose (if they can) jobs that pay enough money to cover the payments, often limiting their career choices to an extent they didn’t foresee in their undergraduate days.
Even students who can earn enough to service their debts may find themselves constrained in other ways: It’s hard to get a mortgage, for example, when you’re already effectively paying one in the form of student loans. And unlike other debt, there’s no “fresh start” available, since student loans generally aren’t dischargeable under bankruptcy. The whole thing looks a bit like the debt slavery schemes used by company stores and sharecropping operators during the 19th century.
Now the whole scheme is starting to break down. In my own world of legal education, applications have plummeted over the past few years. According to the ABA Journal, there has been a 22 percent drop this academic year alone, and they’re down almost half from 2007. Business schools, with declining pay and employment prospects for MBA graduates, are experiencing similar declines. Even in undergraduate admissions, colleges are losing the ability to set prices as applicants become more value-conscious. These trends have led the Moody’s rating service to downgrade the outlook for the entire higher education sector to “negative.”
Some in higher education are offended. College should be about improving your mind, they say, not about future salaries. But a recent study of more than 700 schools by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni found that many have virtually no requirements. Perhaps that’s why students, on average, are studying 50 percent less than they were a couple of decades ago.
When higher education was cheap enough that students could pay their own way by working part-time, “study what interests you” was reasonable advice. When the investment runs well into the six figures, students would be crazy not to worry about the return. If there’s no return, it’s not an investment; it’s a consumption item. A six-figure consumption item is well beyond the resources of most college-age Americans; nobody would advise an 18-year-old to purchase a Ferrari on borrowed money. But if a college education is a consumption item, not an investment, then they’re basically doing the same thing.
Higher education needs to be cheaper, more flexible, and better. It’s possible that technology will show the way: With the proliferation of online courses, some offered by major brand-name schools like Harvard, MIT, or Georgia Tech, there’s no reason why students should have to go into massive debt. And while an online degree from MIT (when such becomes available) probably won’t be worth as much as traditional MIT sheepskin, it may well outperform degrees from many less prestigious brick-and-mortar schools.