Failing College

Why are we screwing up the world's best higher education system?


The American higher education system is the envy of the world, or so the cliché goes. The sons and daughters of foreign potentates flock to our shores, while kids raised on apple pie and Sesame Street claw each others' eyes out for the chance to attend a top university. With more than 18 million current undergraduates—who pay average annual tuition of $32,000 each—the market for higher education seems to be going gangbusters.

Expanding post-secondary education is a government priority, too. In his 2009 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama declared that "every American will need to get more than a high school diploma." He sounded a similar note three years later, saying that "higher education can't be a luxury, it is an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."

But despite—or because of—this attention, there is trouble in paradise. Enrollment may be skyrocketing, but so are student debt levels and default rates. Tuition costs are increasing many times faster than income, or than prices in any other sector. This is in large part thanks to the gusher of federal money pouring into American colleges in the form of Pell Grants, subsidized loans, and research dollars, totaling nearly $200 billion a year. While the dream is to make college accessible to all, the reality is that subsidies contribute to skyrocketing prices, making college an increasingly expensive and risky undertaking.

Students arrive on campus underqualified, courtesy of an American public school system that has flatlined in quality while tripling its per-student cost. They do less academic work yet receive better grades than their parents did. And their post-college job prospects are dim, with unemployment rates for recent grads hovering at 12 percent.

These wounds are largely self-inflicted, and thus eminently correctable. A problem largely created by government's distorting money and politics would improve rapidly with its withdrawal. Yet the lasting fix may come from outside competitors, in the form of for-profit schools, massively open online courses, and other specialty schools more responsive to students' 21st century needs and lifestyles than ivy-covered institutions founded in the 17th.

Students will soon face a more complicated landscape with better, cheaper options for meeting their objectives, whether they are seeking a credential, a skill set, or just a social network. What follows is a critical look at the factors that are sending the once-vaunted American higher education system into decline. If we are to fix the problem, after all, a little knowledge is in order. 

Click here to read Glenn Reynolds, Richard Vedder, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Nick Gillespie, and others offer plans on how to survive the inevitable popping of the higher education bubble.

NEXT: History Channel's Satan Bears Resemblance to Barack Obama

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. There’s nothing about this higher education bubble that hiring a few more university administrators won’t fix.

    1. Hear, hear!

      1. I second the motion, more administrators. One more, we can carry it, and top men come to the rescue again.

        1. I think a committee is in order with a Czar to head the committee of course.

          1. Why not a czarina who is a wise latina lesbian? Clearly you are sexist, race baiting homophobe.

    2. I have been out of college for 25 years and haven’t paid much attention – but now I have a sophomore in High School.

      We were at Penn State a few months ago. I was standing in the lobby of a dorm looking at a board with a long, long list of names. I asked if these were the students living there – turns out it was the Administrators who work in that building. I was stunned, although it explained their tuition trajectory.

      1. I am in the middle of the middle class, and if I had a sophomore in High School I would be panicking about how we’re ever going to afford college.

        1. I have two kids in college and am coming to see the whole thing as a giant racket that basically defrauds most students, loading them with debt and providing no, or almost no, useful skills.

          The only thing that keeps the system going is that the credential of a degree has become absolutely essential for employment.

        2. Do your little offspring a favor and send them to trade school or community college first. Once they get that trade, they can pay for, or at least defray the costs college. If community college is the route, they can knock out the core curriculum and then transfer to a more prestigous university.

        3. I went to the Naval Academy. Tax payers paid for my education in exchange for 5 years of service in the Marines. Not sure i could have afforded getting an engineering degree otherwise. Maybe part of the conspiracy. Higher tuition leads to more people joining the military to get the college tuition benefits.

          1. I have three in college now. My own fault, I was over zealous in my procreation. That said, it’s a racket, those administrators are not as lazy as you may think, they spend their time creating degree structures meant to defraud the student. Structures that marry the student to the college for the longest possible time period, at the highest cost, with a schedule of courses offered that do not match well with the degree structures. It takes a team of experts and every trick you can devise to get a child through college in four years.

            1. Putting kids through college is easy for a middle class person – just become a meth cook.

            2. Agreed. The school I went did shit like that. The way my school scheduled classes very few people I knew could get out in four years. The last time I tried doing 5 classes in one semester, I ended up with three hour and a half classes and 2 labs in a row. Yeah sure, you could try summer classes, but the school was in the middle of nowhere, which would seriously muck up trying to get a summer internship.

              1. That should be “three hour and a half classes and 2 labs in a row in one day.”

      2. Also read an article on this in Harvard Business review by a professor. His target was tenure. That tenure forced colleges to keep professors who are unproductive, in addition to the more productive ones. The inability to adjust their rosters requires higher tuition to cover the costs. I am not saying it is or isn’t, but it is an interesting point. The author’s argument is to shift to contracts over tenure. This has apparently been done in other countries without subjecting professors to some inquisition for unpopoular ideas. Like I said, interesting.

    3. No shit. I teach at a middle of the road u-grad university. 25% or more of students drop out after their freshman year, yet we are told they are our highest scoring SAT students ever. (I think they leave out the ones who are academically challenged though)

      Tuition keeps going up as do administrators but most of the professors have not had raises in two years.

    4. There’s nothing about this higher education bubble that HANGING a few more university administrators won’t fix.

  2. “These wounds are largely self-inflicted, and thus eminently correctable.”

    I don’t know…given who runs education, self-inflicted wounds is a feature not a bug.

    1. And ’eminently correctable’ is rather gracious.

      I’ve never seen someone bludgeon themselves to death. I’m certain it can be done and I’m certain someone’s been dumb enough to do it.

  3. Consequences of the third party payer system.

    1. ^^^^Root Cause^^^^. Thank you.

  4. When my student workers have been with me long enough to realize that the university generally does everything the hardest and least efficient way possible, and that many of the people that work for the university are not rational or reasonable people, I have a little speech I give them.

    I explain that there are three level of society. There is the top level, where there are people who make things or repair things or perform the abstract functions that keep everything working. At the bottom level, there is the insane people and the (true) criminals, locked up to keep them from hurting other people. In the middle is academia, people not functional enough for the real world, but also not a danger to themselves and other people.

    Academia is an expensive zoo we send kids to watch the monkeys masturbate for a few years so they can decide if they want to leave the stink and the squalor of the monkey house, or if they would rather squat down on the shit-smeared straw and start jacking off.

  5. Today’s BA graduates are getting jobs as baristas and bartenders, it past time to reevaluate the premise that higher education is universally good and desirable.

  6. It’s the American dream to get a degree in Renaissance Art Psychology, have $200K in student debt and live in your parents basement? Guess that’s where Democrat voters come from.

    1. Pretty spot on. There’s also a contingent of students who will be bailed out by their wealthy parents.

    2. Why do so many kids get worthless degrees? i think part of the problem is that, in school, kids learn lots of facts and information to help them pass the tests, but they never learn how to actually think. I don’t recall every really learning any logical process aside from the scientific method until i got to college. probably why i didn’t do spectacular there even though i had straight A’s in high school.

      1. Critical thinking? Hmmm, that’s an endangered species on campus. Sophisms supported by a strawman argument now pass for critical thing so long as it supports pre-existing opinions.

        1. Damn autocorrect. Critical thinking.

          1. There Is some irony with autocorrect society and critical thinking, but I don’t know why it would be ironic. I need an app to help me with that.

      2. The only exposure I had to logic and critical thinking in college was abstract algebra. That is high level math class; only computer science and mathematics majors take it.

  7. The extended family has two college age youths right now. One did not do so well in his first year. He is now working on getting his EMT certification, and doing quite well at that. The other is piddling around wasting his father’s money studying architecture or something. I knwo which one I’m betting on having a job and being a contibuting member of society first, and it ain’t the one in college.

    I’m hoping my child ends up smart enough to get a solid engineering degree. If not, I’m thinking welding, machining, or plumbing. Skilled trades don’t seem to be starving, and the supply doesn’t seem to be keeping up with demand.

    1. “wasting his father’s money studying architecture or something. I knwo which one I’m betting on having a job and being a contibuting member of society first, and it ain’t the one in college.”

      Yes, because EMT’s make so much more than architechts.

      1. Unfamiliar with how the actual profession of architecture works, then? Assuming he can manage to finish the degree, he’ll be making about what the one with the EMT cert will be making starting. The upside potential for architect is better, but again, he’s got to finish the degree and demonstrate some skill at the trade. I has my doubts.

        1. There’s also the slight problem of 14% unemployment in the field and a massive glut of supply. Architecture is routinely falling at the top or near the top of “worst degrees” lists right now. That may change in the future, but it’s a really tough field to be graduating into at the moment.

        2. EMT’s make about $10/hr. Now, it is a gateway to better paying jobs if he continues on with his paramedic certification, and he can get a lot of overtime, but EMT is a low-paying job.

          1. The average wage for a licensed architect is over two times the average wage for a licensed EMT. But yes, the unemployment factor is a challenge.

        3. The architect would have been better off with civil engineering. Though probably not by much. Getting an entry level position in engineering these days is pretty much the first circle of hell. All about getting past the computerized gatekeeper.


          Mr. Cappelli’s favorite email came from a company that drew 25,000 applicants for a standard engineering position only to have the HR department say not one was qualified. One job seeker said “he had been told he was perfect for a given position?except for the fact that his previous job title didn’t match that of the vacancy,” a title unique to the prospective employer.

  8. if I had a sophomore in High School I would be panicking about how we’re ever going to afford college.

    I told my brother to take the tuition money and buy his son a backhoe.
    He ignored my advice, of curse.

    1. had a buddy in high school who mowed lawns for cast. He got a deal to mow grass along highways and has expanded. He makes more than i do now and i have a BS in Mechanical Engineering and work as a manufacturing supervisor at an electric motor/generator repair shop. Something to be said for entrepreneurship

  9. why are they screwing up [insert item here]? money

  10. Olivier Garrett, Rick Rule and Doug Casey give talks to Walter Block’s students at The Economics Club of Loyola University:

    3 interesting and different sets of career advice and Doug’s is especially entertaining

  11. College isn’t what it used to be obviously, but there is more going on than prices. It used to be an employer could look at a high-school graduate, and by their possession of that certificate know the candidate in question had the basics down – they could read, they could count, they had proven capable of showing up on time and then function in a hierarchic social group.

    H.S. degree doesn’t mean that anymore. Look at what the bulk of a typical modern undergrad’s coursework in college – such to say remedial stuff. That guy with the B.A. in Communications or Psychology isn’t advertising he’s educated anymore, he’s advertising that he knows how to read, can show up on time, etc. That’s where that expectation has ‘moved’ in society, to college, and why it seems so necessary (apparently) to have a B.A. requirements for entry-level office admins and other malarkey today.

    Of course the socialist-locusts that ate the public-education tree of any worth are now chewing college down to the roots, diverting money into their causes and creatures making things outrageously expensive and delivering less, moving on from fertile field to fertile field as is their habit.

    1. Agreed. B.A. = Look, I can read and do simple math.

    2. As for the worth of high school diplomas – I once worked with a man who couldn’t read his.

      It sure is costing a hell of a lot to signal this, though.

      1. It doesn’t help that court decisions have made the possession of a degree the first level “cut” for hiring decisions.

  12. The current system has devalued the B.A. just as the Fed has devalued the dollar. Do you really NEED a B.A. to do routine data entry?Probably not and yet, here I am looking at said job opening, 4 year degree required, a whopping $24,500 a year! Keep them spare bedrooms open parents.

  13. Yikes, $32 000 annually? I’m paying like $18 000 for my whole degree.

    1. This is like people refusing to buy anything but designer jeans from the most upscale department store and then moaning, “No one can afford to buy pants anymore!”

  14. “American public school system that has flatlined in quality….They do less academic work yet receive better grades than their parents did.”

    Is this really true? I might have believed this until I had kids. Granted, my kids are only in elementary school, so I don’t know what high school is like, but they do a hell of a lot more academic work than I did at their age. And they have lower grades than I did too, mainly because it’s a lot harder than it was when I went.

    1. Is this really true? I might have believed this until I had kids. Granted, my kids are only in elementary school, so I don’t know what high school is like, but they do a hell of a lot more academic work than I did at their age.

      I remember reading a bio of Albert Einstein – the most infamous example of an academic slacker – and was amazed about his schooling.

      When that guy was fifteen, he was a Jewish kid going to a Catholic school among the dying embers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sounds terrible, right?

      Look at the syllabus poor Albert was learning at school though: Latin, rhetoric, Classics, calculus, history, geography…not a ‘communications’ or ‘home economics’ joke in the list.

      Rare is the ‘college graduate’ these days who could qualify on a test to get in half those classes a tenth-grader was taking in supposedly an ossified backwater of Europe. No wonder Einstein dropped out, he already had a vaunted Master’s in Psychological Business Administration Communication Marketolgy, with a minor in Climate Clowntology by modern American measure.

      1. Yes, but I’m not comparing my kids education to Albert Einstein’s private Catholic education in Germany. I’m comparing it to my own public school education. When we say public school education is declining, we can only compare it to the way public school education was. I went to the same school system in which I enrolled them. And it was a lot easier when I went. That said, the teaching methods were superior when I went (more phonics based than whole language, more “drill and kill” that actually caused the math to sink in), so I did end up pulling my kids from public school and sending my kids to a private classical school where they learn things I never learned in public school – systematic grammar from a young age, Latin, etc. However, that said, I do know lots of kids still in the public schools – I see what they learn, and it is 1-2 grades ahead of what I learned in public school at thier age. Kids are doing Algebra in 5th grade here. I did algebra in 8th grade, and that was “advanced.”

    2. There’s actually pretty good evidence that homework and long hours are bad for elementary age children. In one experiment in the 1930s, lower class children who didn’t have a single math class until 6th grade performed BETTER at the end of 6th grade than the middle class students who had math every year through 6th.

      Children need time to learn on their own, and to play and experiment on their own. Kindergarten was created specifically to give kids the time to do this – and now we are regimenting that time too and killing the spirit of inquiry.

      Kids don’t have a chance in America today – not if they play by the rules.

      1. I agree with this up to a point. Math should be introduced earlier if the kids is ready, but it should be more concentrated. There’s a huge amount of repetition. If you teach a kid when he is interested and in a sytematic way, you can teach the enitre K-6 curriculum in about 20 contact hours. But let’s be honest – some kids are never interested in some subjects, and you got to teach them anyway, so you do it a little at a time over 6 years praying some will sink in.

  15. I think online education is important, because it allows for lifelong education. Students should be free to take a break from high school, get tho vocational training they need for work, and work part time towards degrees as they work building assets and gaining experience.

    1. They are free to do it. Whether or not they choose to is another matter.

      1. I can think of some state schools. Queen’s University in Canada and Harvard Extension School (I’m not sure if a student can accepted to Harvard University can get all their credits from correspondence) are the only examples of prestigious universities with a good distance program. Athabasca University in northern Alberta could probably be included as well.

    2. FIT-Florida Institute of Technology has one, as well as UNC-Chapel Hill.

      I graduated from an online high school, which was (and is) a helluva better than the alternative. In my opinion, fully online Colleges are different. I think the WebEx or similar platforms will soon replace large lecture halls. However, I have a hard time believing that online colleges can turn out the same level of graduates before entering the workforce.

      1. Thanks great one more to the list. I don’t think they have to though. Online education is perfect for adult education.

        1. So is porn.

  16. Which is the best blog for us.we are enjoy it and will show them to everyone.

  17. College/University has largely become another vehicle for collectivist redistribution and “social justice”. The only reason to get an education is to lead one to a productive job. What’s so hard about that concept for so many?

    Another example of – too many people, not enough productive work.

  18. the gusher of federal money pouring into American colleges in the form of Pell Grants, subsidized loans, and research dollars, totaling nearly $200 billion a year.

    That’s one heckuva vested interest stake.

  19. Indeed, there are serious consequences to the creation and bursting of an education bubble:……..story.html

    It’s not pretty, to say the least. It can be potentially far worse than something like the housing bubble bursting.

  20. If you think Victoria`s story is flabbergasting,, 3 weaks-ago my friend made $4441 putting in a ninteen hour week an their house and they’re roomate’s ex-wife`s neighbour has done this for nine months and earned more than $4441 in their spare time from a computer. the guidelines available at this link,

  21. my buddy’s sister makes $70/hr on the computer. She has been out of work for 8 months but last month her pay check was $18807 just working on the computer for a few hours. Read more on this site

  22. and research dollars, totaling nearly $200 billion a year.

  23. attention, there is trouble in paradise. Enrollment may be

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.