Maybe parents might want to consider the effects of pushing their children to get a college education:
Cyndee Marcoux already was stretched thin, thanks to the $80,000 in student loans she racked up after getting divorced and going back to school a decade ago. Her breaking point came in 2010, when her daughter defaulted on student-loan payments of her own.
That’s because Ms. Marcoux, a 53-year-old library administrator in Seekonk, Mass., co-signed for about $55,000 of her daughter’s loans. When the daughter was unable to keep making payments, Ms. Marcoux was on the hook—a burden that forced her to reshuffle her entire life. To scrape up the extra $550 a month she owed, she sold her house, then took a second job registering emergency-room patients on the weekend overnight shift. “You work your whole life and never pay a bill late,” says Ms. Marcoux. “You don’t ever think your kid isn’t going to pay.”
As certain internet writers have noted, this outcome wasn’t exactly unpredictable. When supply of college-educated labor outpaces demand, due in large part to federal subsidy and state propaganda, it should come as no surprise that the average income of college-educated individuals decline. And since demand for college has outstripped supply (though it should be noted that supply is radically increasing right now, almost like a bubble), two things began to happen at once: wages for college-educated workers declined while the cost of college education went up. The outcome? Lots of college grads are stuck with a lot of debt and no way to pay for it.
Making matters worse, the federal government—in conjunction with the major banks who lend out college loans, service the debt, and even act a collections agencies in the event of default—has conspired to basically make the recipients of student loans into debt slaves by preventing students loans from being discharged in bankruptcy. Furthermore, the federal government strongly encourages parents to co-sign for their children’s college loans by requiring their financial information when filling FAFSA.*
All this has started to bite a good number of parents in the rear. Deservedly so, I might add. Hopefully this will help other parents to wake up and start to actually consider whether a) their child should really go on to college and b) whether they will legally bind themselves to pay for their child’s worthless majors.
* Note: while this is only technically required to determine students’ grant status, it is assumed that parents are going to pay for their children’s education (hence the parents’ expected contribution) portion of the FAFSA calculation. Parents implicitly agree, since they are often expected and encouraged to sign for their children’s loans. Thus, the rarely-challenged assumption is that parents are good for their children’s education costs.
That jump in the lower line is pretty much all student loans. And whenever the government is loaning out money, you can bet that the direct recipients are in the middle of a big ol’ bubble.
Paul Krugman is aghast at this chart, which shows how the Pell Grant has declined in relative cost coverage:
This is pretty much how inflation works. In the early stages, its effects are not very noticeable because an incentive has not yet taken place. As the incentive shift takes place—marking the beginning of a bubble, the price of the bubble product begins to rise, mostly as a way to reflect the actual supply of the bubble product relative to the currency supply and actual demand. Over time, the price of the bubble product rises to roughly match the rate of inflation (although I suspect it’s slightly lower than that in reality as inflation encourages overproduction, which increases supply relative to demand, which is then realized in larger numbers because the price declines slightly, all relative to demand elasticity, of course). As such, subsequent rounds of inflation will never be as effective as the first round of inflation because the first-mover advantage disappears.
This is pretty much what this chart shows. At first, the Pell Grant can cover virtually all tuition costs. There are probably few recipients and minimal initial demand. However, these conditions won’t remin once people learn that the government will contribute X amount of dollars to their education. Everyone wants in on this, and so everyone applies for the Pell Grant. An increasing number of applicants receive the grant, and then college prices rise because, fundamentally, increases in supply cannot match the pace of increases in demand. In order to allocate the scarce resource of postsecondary inflation, an informal price floor takes effect, coincidentally hovering near the amount of the subsidy. When all is said and done, the initial round of inflation doesn’t change a whole lot in the short- or long-run because the fundamental problem is not high nominal costs but the small amount of supply.
Thus, there is no sense in complaining about the decreasing coverage of the Pell Grant. Inflation in the form of subsidies faces the same fundamental problem that normal inflation faces. Quite simply, the issue is a lack of supply, no amount of currency can fix that.
The students’ proposal fits right in. Instead of paying tuition – currently at $12,192, not including mandatory fees, room, board or books – the “UC Student Investment Proposal” would require that students commit to paying 5 percent of their annual income for 20 years after graduating.
Students who pay $2,500 a year – 5 percent of $50,000 – for 20 years, would end up paying $50,000 for their education, slightly more than the $48,768 they would pay over four years if UC tuition were frozen at its current level.
On the other hand, students earning $100,000 would pay $5,000 a year, or $100,000 for their education over two decades.
This is basically no different than the student loan scam, except in that it may possibly be cheaper for students. It functions the same way as student loans—you basically have to work for someone else for an extended period of time, making you essentially an indentured servant. This will thus be the its downfall: it’s too direct about enslavement.
Direct and indirect federal subsidy is often offered as the primary reason for the occurrence of the current college bubble. Most effects of the college bubble are traced back to federal funding, in the forms of student grants and subsidized loans, not to mention research grants as well as general academic funding and diversity grants (wherein a college or university receives federal funding for certain campus offerings, mostly related to making women and minorities feel good about themselves). Basically, federal money is the cause of the college bubble.
This view is not altogether incorrect, but it seems to ignore the role of federal regulation and the role of shifting cultural/societal views regarding student self-esteem. The two generally go hand-in-hand and feed off each other, and so trying to delink the two is impossible. At any rate, what’s neglected in the discussion of the college bubble is the concept of grade inflation.
Grade inflation has occurred primarily for two reasons. First, as mentioned before, the relatively recent self-esteem movement has encouraged the dumbing down of the general curriculum in order to make subpar students feel good about themselves. The history of this movement is dodgy, relative to political intervention. There is no doubt that the government has latched on to the self-esteem movement, but it is not clear if the government was the first mover. Even if it weren’t, private desire and public policy has basically become a self-reinforcing feedback loop, so the point is basically moot. At any rate, the effects of the self-esteem movement are clear, in that students perform moderately well, relative to the world (see Steve Sailer’s take on PISA scores, eg.), while being told that they are highly intelligent. Fortunately, the self-esteem movement does not have as much momentum as it once did, at least from my perspective.
Second, the government has certainly played a role in grade inflation due to the increasing federalization of public schools. The federal government loves uniformity, particularly of outcome, and school outcomes are no exception. As my recent book review pointed out, in brief, the increased bureaucratization of public education has led to a situation where students perform better on an admittedly arbitrary class at the expense of learning things that aren’t on said test. NCLB, in particular, is responsible for this recent effect, and it is part of a larger trend. This trend has led to the inflation of grades in two ways. First, the decreased role of non-test subjects has led to less classroom time dedicated to them, which means that grades in these subjects are based on a smaller sample size of work, and teachers are likely to cut kids slack when grading (at least in my own experience). Second, teachers have cheated on the tests in order to make sure that the kids do well, which sometimes makes students seem smarter than they would otherwise.
Primary and secondary education simultaneously suffered from dumbed-down curriculum and grade inflation, shortchanging intelligent children. They needed some way to fight back and prove their higher intelligence and cognitive abilities, which is where college comes in. While direct federal subsidy of post-secondary education is blamed for the current college bubble—and rightfully so, I might add—this is not the whole picture. The dumbing down of public education has also contributed to the need for college because it now provides the surest means for intelligent students to finally get ahead.
If education is viewed as a way to signal work fitness, then a high school degree has become essentially meaningless. Graduating from high school is no longer a guarantee that one is proficient in math and can speak and write in plain, understandable English. Many colleges tacitly admit this fact with their offering of basic remedial courses. Thus, having a high school education no longer signals that one can be counted on to be a reliable employee.
Thus, intelligent students have two options: drop out of or avoid high school, or go to college. The former is not a good signal for future employment prospects, and thus should be avoided by all but the most entrepreneurial of intelligent students. The latter option—going to college—is the most viable option to demonstrate employment fitness. Thus, intelligent students can no longer simply graduate with good grades at the top of their high school class, they must also get a post-secondary education of some sort as well.
Therefore, while the current increases in college enrollment are undoubtedly the consequence of direct and indirect federal subsidy, it is both foolish and dangerous to ignore the effect of the self-esteem movement and federal regulation, and how both have distorted the signal of secondary education. As such, popping the college bubble won’t be as simple as ending federal regulation. Popping the bubble will also require federal deregulation, and a more appropriate view of the role of self-esteem in a child’s educational development.
In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.
Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.
One of the subtle cultural shifts arising from the education bubble has been how people are inclined to view college. It used to be that people went to college for an education. Now people go to college in order to ensure having a good job later on.* In essence, the role of college has shifted from education to credentials.
As such, it should not be surprising that colleges dumb down both their admission requirements and their curriculum, for the goal is not education. Rather, the goal is giving students customers a piece of paper that says they are smart. This claim doesn’t have to reflect reality in any meaningful way because most students don’t bear the direct costs of their “education.” Therefore, students are considerably more willing to spend their parents’ money and their future income on degrees that become less and less valuable.
Basically, then, the dumbing down of academic standards is proof of the education bubble because the free and cheap money subsidizes marginal students who would otherwise have no business being in college. This subsidy is then seen in the dumbed-down curriculum, for students expect to have something to show for the time and money they’ve put into college, and it’s easier to satisfy customers by giving them a degree regardless of their actual accomplishments.
*One thing that always puzzles me is how parents think that four to six years of extended adolescence is better for their children’s future than having an actual full time job is. But that’s for another post.
From Bryan Caplan:
Many educators sooth their consciences by insisting that “I teach my students how to think, not what to think.” But this platitude goes against a hundred years of educational psychology. Education is very narrow; students learn the material you specifically teach them… if you’re lucky.
Other educators claim they’re teaching good work habits. But especially at the college level, this doesn’t pass the laugh test. How many jobs tolerate a 50% attendance rate – or let you skate by with twelve hours of work a week? School probably builds character relative to playing videogames. But it’s hard to see how school could build character relative to a full-time job in the Real World.
At this point, you may be thinking: If professors don’t teach a lot of job skills, don’t teach their students how to think, and don’t instill constructive work habits, why do employers so heavily reward educational success? The best answer comes straight out of the ivory tower itself. It’s called the signaling model of education – the subject of my book in progress, The Case Against Education.
According to the signaling model, employers reward educational success because of what it shows (”signals”) about the student. Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.
In the signaling story, what matters is how much education you have compared to competing workers. When education levels rise, employers respond with higher standards; when education levels fall, employers respond with lower standards. We’re on a treadmill. If voters took this idea seriously, my close friends and I could easily lose our jobs. As a professor, it is in my interest for the public to continue to believe in the magic of education: To imagine that the ivory tower transforms student lead into worker gold.
What makes the college bubble so problematic is that it is essentially inflationary. College degrees can be considered a form of currency in the labor market, wherein one purchases a salary with not only one’s labor but one’s college education as well. Obviously, this mechanism is not as direct as, say, buying milk at a grocery store, but the effect is similar.
The labor market, then, relies on college degrees to indicate a prospective employee’s fitness for the salary being offered. Certain types of degrees generally pay better than others, certain colleges’ degrees pay better than others, certain grade point averages are worth more than others, etc. Someone who receives an MBA from Harvard while maintaining a GPA of 4.0 will generally earn more than someone who receives an Associate’s degree from ITT Tech while maintaining a 2.0 GPA. This should make sense, as the quality of student varies by institution, degree, and grade, and there are ways to sort this. The college bubble, then, serves as a form of inflation because it distorts the signal that a college has in the labor market.
Basically, as is well known, the college bubble is the result of massive governmental interference in the post-secondary education market. The federal government offers direct subsidies of education costs (e.g. the Pell Grant), and also makes college loans a very enticing offer to lenders by guaranteeing the loans. With direct subsidies and easy credit, prospective students have a very strong incentive to go to college. Furthermore, with this much money on the line, colleges have a very strong incentive to accept more students.
The effects of this bubble, as noted before, are seen primarily in signal distortion. This occurs because employers now have a larger labor from which to select workers. This generally seems like a good thing, since employers can now offer lower wages, but this is not always the case because some potential workers are perhaps not as well-qualified for their position as others. The problem with using college degrees as a qualification is that, at this point, there isn’t enough data to sort the good from the bad. When there were a limited number of college-educated labor candidates, the quality was considerably better since colleges had an incentive to maintain quality control. This is no longer the case because the federal government is paying colleges, indirectly, to simply pass out degrees to young adults with no regards for their qualification.
Thus, the lower wages that have resulted from the increased pool of labor applicants can be thought of as a risk premium. Because there are more college-educated people in the labor supply coupled with increased variance of abilities without there being an increase in the sharpness of the signal generally associated with a college education, and because American labor is tightly regulated with regards to discrimination (particularly as it pertains to firing employees), there is consequently more risk associated with hiring someone because the chance that person a company hires turns out to be a bust, as it were, is considerably greater. Given the costs associated with firing incompetent workers, particularly if they are in a union or minority, employers have an increased incentive to mitigate that risk by offering lower wages.
As such, the most problematic aspect of the college bubble is the consequences that come with signal distortion. Because the supply of college educated labor has increased with a matching increase in demand for said labor, and because a college degree isn’t nuanced enough as a single, there will be an increase in the number of people who are overpaid and an increase in the number of people who are underpaid. This happens because the signal sent by a college degree is roughly the same for everyone who has one.*
Some people will be underpaid because their aptitude is such that they would ordinarily deserve more pay than they are currently receiving but, because it is now more difficult to tell who has what levels of aptitude, they must take a pay cut. The reverse is true for those who are overpaid. Basically, the inflation in the number of students undermines meritocracy, thereby distorting the pay scale. Thus, the current bubble has introduced not only distortion, but market failure on a large scale.
The irony of the current college bubble is that its existence is largely predicated on the belief that a college education makes one more intelligent. This claim is laughable on its face because it does not begin to account for the self-selection bias inherent in this sort of activity. Do students learn because they go to college or do they go to college because they like to learn? This is a crucial question because if the answer is the latter, then it seems likely that those who do go to college would become just as knowledgeable if they lived in a library for four years.
At any rate, the college bubble has had the nasty effect of giving diplomas to those who have no desire to learn, and have undermined the meritocracy that once was a college education, thereby depriving those who are truly above average from an income that would properly reflect this fact. This, then, is the lamentable effect of the college bubble: The attempt to make everyone equal in education has only led to a diminution of standards. We are all idiots now.
* Obviously, a Harvard diploma is still more valuable than an ITT Tech diploma. However, if Harvard’s business school doubles the number of graduates, year over year, the value of a Harvard degree will decline assuming that there is not a corresponding increase in demand for Harvard grads.
Seriously, what’s so difficult about allowing student loans
to be discharged in bankruptcy?
Today, President Obama is effectively giving college students and their parents his middle finger. Whereas Jobs’ prank was harmless and symbolic, the President’s plan to bail out student loans will derail the entrepreneurial dreams and financial security of countless young people. [Ed. - this claim is utter bulls**t.Bailing out student loans will increase their financial security because they will no longer be slaves to the banks. And, with less debt, they can actually become entrepreneurs.]
By executive order, the President’s unconstitutional “We Can’t Wait – Pay As You Earn” plan modifies the existing Income-Based Repayment Plan so that, effective in 2012, graduates may cap their loan payments at 10percent instead of 15 percent of their discretionary income. Anything remaining after 25 years (formerly 20 years) becomes fundamentally the taxpayers’ responsibility. And, if a student wants to become a public servant (i.e. work for George Soros) his loan will be forgiven after just 10 years.
Obviously, Obama is playing for political points with this plan, presumably to mollify the OWSers, so I understand outrage for that reason. But what I don’t understand is how anyone thinks that student loans weren’t already the taxpayers’ responsibility. The government guaranteed student loans a long time ago, which is one of the reasons there’s a college bubble—private lenders face virtually no risk on the loans. In fact, the government guarantee of repayment is why default was taken off the table as an option: the government didn’t want taxpayers to take it in the shorts.
Neo-con bomb-lobbing aside, Obama’s plan is pretty terrible. It shouldn’t wreck the economy(at least no more than seeding a college bubble would), and it’s better than a jubilee for the loans, but there is still a much better solution available: the federal government should stop guaranteeing student loans and allow them to be discharged in bankruptcy. This way, college student wannabes won’t be as inclined to pursue worthless degrees and banks won’t be as inclined to fund the pursuit of worthless degrees. You don’t need bailouts, you don’t need special debt laws, all you need is the ability to discharge student debt during bankruptcy. Problem solved.
If you weren’t sure about the existence of a college bubble, here’s proof:
When the number of psychology majors increase by 135% over25 years, you can be reasonably sure that there’s a college bubble because a) psychology is not a science, it’s a form of bovine fecal matter and b) economies don’t need psychologists in order to grow and thrive. In essence, more than doubling the number of psychologists in the economy is not going to cause massive growth.
So why are there so many psychology majors? Simple: The ease of obtaining student loans makes it appear that there is more demand for psychologists than actually exists. And why do current students believe there is more demand for psychologists than actually exists? Again, simple: the government has incentivized the extension of student loans by guaranteeing repayment thereof. When a student defaults, the government pays the lender then goes to collect the remaining debt. Sometimes the government uses the banks’ collections agencies to collect the loan, which then makes defaulting on student debt a very attractive proposition for the bank that originated the loan.
So how do we know that the increase in psych majors proves there’s a college bubble? Easy: the government’s involved, and is actively encouraging the pursuit of a college education. Plus, does anyone think that so many would pursue a psych degree if they couldn’t finance it so easily?