The Unsustainable Business of Education

College.  Higher education.  That thing you’re apparently supposed to do after graduating high school.  It has been my life these past 13 years, and by all indications will be so for the remainder of my days.  So, as you can imagine, I am rather concerned about its future.

Whether or not it was a compassionate move or a bold play for sympathy and votes, President Obama’s recent announcement about adjusting student loan repayment rules underlines an important reality.  College is expensive…and it will not be getting cheaper any time soon.  The average graduate of a four-year institution now owes nearly $25,000 in student loans.  College costs continue to increase, outpacing inflation and general cost of living expenses.  What this leaves us with is trouble.

What has caused all of this?  I don’t know, entirely.  But I do know that more people continue their education past high school than ever before.  For many students, it is simply assumed that college is the next step.  The problems with this are legion, and have had a ripple effect in American society.

1.  Students feel compelled to go to college, even if they have no idea what they want to do or whether they belong in college in the first place.  Not to mention that most high school seniors have little conception of the amounts of money they will have to borrow to accomplish their goal.

2.  More and more occupations are now requiring advanced degrees for jobs that did not require such high levels of education before.  This means more money must be spent to be qualified/trained for the same jobs.

3.  The vast assembly line that is higher education must churn out more and more degrees.  The effect is, I suspect, diluting the value and integrity of such degrees.  Does the BA of today represent the same academic vigor of the BA of fifty years ago?  I fear it does not.

4.  The hegemony of the “college educated” has the potential to create an unhealthy societal division between those who have gone to college and those who have not.  This works both ways, however:  not going to college and accumulating massive amounts debt means that those entering and apprenticing in the trades may actually end up better financially that their lettered peers.

5.  As noted above, the accumulation of vast amounts of debt continues to accelerate, moreso than even federal loans with relatively gentle terms can accommodate.  Parents and students themselves are forced to turn to private lenders with interest rates and repayment terms that can approach the predatory.  After graduation, even students that find reasonably well-paying jobs are saddled with monthly payments that preclude hopes of buying a first home or approaching anything near comfortable self-sufficiency.

Is a college education worth it?  I think so, but not for everyone.  If things continue they way they have been, I suspect it will be worth it for fewer and fewer in years to come.

There are ways out of this wilderness, and tomorrow I’ll propose two likely options.  One for the classical liberals who favor the free hand of the market, and the other for those in favor of a more interventionist government.  Until then, your thoughts?

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