Popping the Education Bubble?

It is easy, all too easy, to make sport at the expense of the Wall Street “occupiers.” They are overeducated, whiney, and spoiled, they have no coherent plans, objections, or complaints, and on top of everything they are coarse, ill-mannered, and uncouth. Welcome to many college campuses across the country.

But two recent articles make me think there might yet be a silver lining here. Jenna Ashley Robinson argues that a large part of the anger and frustration the occupiers feel is a result of their having been sold a bill of goods: everyone from the President to their high school guidance counselor has insisted that a college education is an absolute necessity not only to leading a morally acceptable life but also to a well-paying job. Naively believing this fairytale, thousands and thousands of students have incurred debts and spent a lot of time getting a college degree—and now here they are, without having mastered any real or marketable skills, with few and limited job prospects, and with a lot of attitude.

Rutgers sociologist Jackson Toby argues that a similar pattern might help explain why so many young people—including many college graduates—have been willing to risk their lives in the recent Arab uprisings. They too were told how important it was to get a college degree, at almost any cost and no matter what else they wanted to do in life. Now here they are as well: educated, many years older, and without jobs or prospects.

Return now to the Wall Street protesters. Perhaps one thing they might help precipitate is the looming bursting of the “education bubble,” which so many have discussed and predicted (see particularly this article in The Economist). This is much to be hoped for. Higher education has been overpromising and underdelivering, and at increasingly absurd prices, for some time now.

And students have indeed been sold a bill of goods. Consider:

It is false and offensive to suggest that one cannot lead a good, noble, and honorable life without a college degree. It is moreover false and foolish to believe that a college degree is an absolute good, worth having at almost any price. It is unfortunately true that for most colleges and universities and for most students no real educational value is obtained, in skills or knowledge; indeed, in many cases, the training in bad moral and intellectual habits, combined with the unrealistic belief in having achieved skill or knowledge, might actually constitute a value substracted. Finally, it is lamentably true that for a great number of students who attend college, the cost in money, time, and opportunity forsaken, is simply not worth it.

I have had several conversations recently with recent graduates of top universities in the New York area who have no job, no concrete idea what their education prepared them to do, and, in most cases, debt. For some of them, their parents paid the entire bill, so the student, thankfully, has no debt, but the parents’ sacrifice was enormous. Was it worth it? Perhaps. But there are a lot of people for whom it is obvious—painfully obvious—that it is not worth it, and they are figuring that out.

It might be too late for the Wall Street protesters to do anything about it in their own cases, since many of them have apparently already gone to college and gone into debt. But perhaps their frustrations, however incoherent and unfocused they might otherwise be, will help convey the message to younger people and to their parents that the time might finally have come to do a cost/benefit analysis before going, or sending one’s children, to college. That realization is a long time coming. I suspect many colleges and universities will not like the results of such calculations, but everyone else will be better for it.

7 thoughts on “Popping the Education Bubble?

  1. I recently created an infographic about it (I’m a graphics designer + webmaster).

    Please check it out here:

    With the whole occupy wall street thing going on, my goal with this infographic is to educate average Americans how dangerous the financial system is.

    If you like it, I would appreciate it if you would spread the word to your readers and link back to my page. Thanks!

  2. In a completely unscientific sample of my friends and family who have shipped their kids off to college over the past couple of years, there is no decline in the willingness to pay exorbitent fees for the privilege of doing so. The least amount these kids pay is $40k per year. In most cases they pay it because they can, but a couple are actually accumulating debt to do so. Most remarkable to me is the persistence of the notion that a college education will lead to a top job, and the apparent pressure these folks feel both attend college, and a “top” one (aka: expensive) at that. As a side note: questioning the wisdom of all this threatens familial harmony.

    I wonder when the prevailing wisdom/attitude will change.

  3. My fear is that so long as the government continues to loan money at wildly below-market rates to people willing to funnel that money directly into the coffers of the higher-ed industry, the bubble will not burst any time soon. When people realize their fabric of life (in this case, their religious faith in the liberal arts education) is coming apart at the seams, they double down on it. I wouldn’t be shocked if we saw a tide of new post-grads, and not long thereafter, a tide of angry post-grads with no jobs.

  4. This issue needs to be made more public!

    I come from Canada and am currently working on a PhD in the US (on fellowship). I was able to pay my own undergrad tuition based on my summer earnings doing manual labour. We have a public system back home, and I understand this comes with it’s own issues. However, I believe that the pseudo-private system in the States is brewing a real catastrophe that people remain overwhelmingly ignorant of.

    As already alluded to, government loans given to undergraduate students going to private institutions are pushing up demand — and consequently tuition prices — for an ambiguously valuable good. This good maintains a culturally percieved material worth that simply doesn’t exist. I hear my students talking incessently about all the opportunities that await them as soon as they get that piece of decorated paper.

    Don’t laugh at them. They’ve been fed this horseshit since they began learning to read and write — skills they never managed to master, thanks to a bankrupt morality when it comes to educating children in this country. The corporate world of so-called “academia” has taken advantage of this sentiment, raving about past presidents, CEOs and diplomats who ‘just couldn’t have done it without those four years of courses at this top-ranked institution’. They have no shame. The parents don’t know better — after all, their own elite education seemed to correspond to success they enjoyed later in life. How are these students supposed to know any better? They’re doing what they believe is right and good, and that is never something to be scoffed at!

    The US government benefits politically every time it passes anything promising American children ‘education’ (and therefore ‘success’). Quite frankly, most of the students graduating from this school, who worked so hard for those A’s in high school, who spent huge amounts of their time ‘volunteering’ and working for ‘their community’ don’t have the intellectual capacity of a dalmatien who’s learned to sit and roll over. They can’t read, concentrate, express themselves properly — the manufactured answers will only cut it in the manufactured world of academia. Academic and intellectual were never synonyms, and the cost of this error will be enormous.

    These students will graduate and face a job market offering them a $10/hr compensation for their time. They flood the entry-level white-collar positions and further rack up the debt on credit cards that seem to increase their limits every two weeks. They will NOT pay off these loans, private or govenment, and they will NOT manage their credit card debt. They can’t. This generation will default and the banks and the government will not be able to cover the cost. People never thought housing would crash, and post-secondary education is next in line.

    I am the furthest thing from an anti-intellectual: the education system here is a rotting, thieveing and heartless marketing gimmick. We need to educate ourselves. Use the net, go to the library, make sophisticated friends, buy a used book, but do not give into this illusion.

    And I’m going to take some of my own medicine.

  5. That pretty much sums it up. I would also add that with more college admissions came lower standards, which removed pressure from high schools, which lowered their standards at the same time more pressure was put on more going to college, which had to lower their standards more, in a feedback loop that won’t end until there’s a complete economic/political collapse.

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