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Higher Ed Bubble?

Picking up on the education theme of the Samuelson article Peter links to below, I note that Michael Barone today writes about something Glenn Reynolds and Charles Murray (among others) have pointed to as a coming bubble in higher education.  A quick look at this overview of Ohio schools (just to cite an example in which--full disclosure--Ashland is not considered) offers one explanation.  Looking at the cost of tuition and comparing that to what is expected of students (in other words, what they learn) one can see in concrete terms what critics of American higher ed have long suspected:  we don't ask much of students . . . unless, of course, you count their money. 

Making college more accessible--through the infusion of government loans and a general societal expectation that ALL should go--has had the effect of making college much less valuable.  It has now reached the point where this is true, not only in terms of the actual knowledge garnered by students but also in fiscal terms.  The return on investment part of the equation is finally catching up to the quality of the education.  In other words, it is poor. 

In a recession, of course, people flock to quality because the cost of blowing their money on sub par investments is much higher than it is when times are good. Combine this fact with the new realities of an information age in which it is now much easier for consumers of higher education to comparison shop and evaluate the merits of the product.  Now consider whether this coming bubble might be the best thing to happen in American education for a long time. 

Of course, this all presumes that people will ask the right questions when they search for answers about higher education.  That is, it assumes that people will have some general good idea about what education, in fact, is.  This will lead some of my colleagues to despair.  But I am more optimistic.  Here's why:  until now, no one (save a few precious souls already ensconced in ivory towers) was even asking these questions.   Until now, most Americans had been content to assume that the experts who insisted that so-called college "education" is a good to be desired by all, were correct and, in that assumption, we have allowed that education to become cheap and easy.  As it becomes more precious and rare, perhaps the general character of what is offered will come, finally, to resemble what education is actually meant to be:  precious and rare.

Barone notes that Charles Murray is happy about the coming bubble because Murray thinks college really ought to be reserved for serious scholars.  I have some sympathy for that point of view, but I don't quite accept it in full.  Is it possible (or, even, desirable) to put that particular genie back in the bottle?  Would it really be better to go back to the 1910 standard of a 2% college graduation rate?  There are a number of things about the democratization of college education that I think have been pretty good developments.  For one thing, because of the proliferation of colleges, nearly every town is at least reasonably close to some valuable cultural outlets that probably did not exist in 1910.  And there are many other happy developments--including more opportunities for women and for people not born into otherwise educated families--that make me pretty glad I was not of college age in 1910.  Moreover, if everyone is not suited to be a scholar, it does not follow that everyone cannot benefit--to some degree--from a good education.  How much any one person benefits will now, as always, depend upon that person.  In 1910 few people benefited from education because education was not widely available.  Today, few people benefit from education for exactly the same reason . . . though there is a different cause for education's absence. 
Categories > Education

Discussions - 9 Comments

Public education is poor enough that some of my students don't know they could be serious scholars until they get to college. They don't know what there is to love in a good education, because they have never had a good education. If public schools were better, there would be less need for a college education. Public education is cheap (though not for the taxpayer) and easy and very few people value it. Maybe it, like college, is not for everyone, at least not high school. If even high school was for those students who are serious, those students might know the pleasure of scholarship. Others could be taught other useful things and maybe we would value those other skills more, too.

Good point. When I was in high school there were classes junior and senior year at local vocational schools that taught auto shop, woodworking, welding, etc. What happened to that - not all kids are college material. We need plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, diesel mechanics, welders, ironworkers, and in my case farriers. Believe it or not good farriers are far and few between. College is not for everyone, but the real underlying need to send everyone to college is to keep the welfare state going for teachers, professors, administrators, janitors, office help, special education etc, etc.

A lot of our problems have to do with the 60's revolution, and in particular the stupid notion that students should rate their professors. I've heard that this leads to pandering because the professor wants high evaluations in order to gain promotion and the like.

I think we all had bad instructors as college students, but turning them into entertainers isn't the way to improve education. I think tenure has got to go; job insecurity is the only way to keep people on their toes.

Students do not mind, they actually appreciate, a difficult course if they know they are learning something. My department head told me there are two kinds of good ratings for professors on student evaluations. Obviously, one is the easy course, which is the "pandering" course that you mention. The other is a course that is hard but is worth the effort. On way or another, students want a "pay-off" and who can blame them? Either an easy "A" or serious learning can be the pay-off.

Samuelson is right; you can't expect great teachers in every classroom. No one even knows what makes a great teacher, except by the results. I suppose my technique is to throw so much information at my students that some of it has to stick. That's a decent enough result. Part of the problem with higher education is that since everyone thinks he must go to college, we get a rather large number of students for whom not much sticks, because they aren't the sticky type for this kind of learning. I fail students every semester and feel awful about it; the information I threw did not stick.

This article, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/07/health/views/07mind.html?_r=1&hpw about new studies of how people learn is interesting and related.

Kate, I saw that article today and passed it along to a friend with the following comments:

The common thread in all this? A friend of mine argued that it showed that the emphasis of educrats on different learning styles is bull. I'm not sure it proves that, but it does prove that the emphasis is on the wrong place. While I really think that it is true that certain people pick up on things due to different stimulus (some read better, some listen better, etc.) so what? It does not follow that any given student can absorb a boring bit of reading because he's a "visual" learner while another student will take to the same boring story if only he hears it. If the story is boring, the story is boring.

Missing in all this education talk is the question of substance!

I think this just proves that educrats are very adept at making learning boring and that they have an infinite number of ways to do it! Just look at what they've done to history! How is it even possible to make history boring? You, like me, know the pain of what they've done to math. It all makes sense to me now . . . a sheet of 50 problems all covering the same formula and lesson! Shoot me now! All people want is to get their minds around something that's sexy and challenging and interesting. People don't like simple . . . life is NOT simple. Complex is sexy. Every subject--even math--can be presented in a way that achieves this but we have succeeded in beating the eros and the chase out of everything. Flat souls rule the roost. Very few teachers and education "experts" come at anything, anymore, with a sense of wonder. The human mind likes to be told stories and to come up with its own methods at absorbing these complexities. In short, we want our minds to be FREE, not tyrannized by drills and wonder-killing dolts. Education, really, ought to be set up to do that--to free the mind and give it flight. As long as it does not do that, no one should be surprised or scolding about the fact that people lapse into escape through the TV.

Not everyone is a puzzle-solver, Julie. My experience is that most people most of the time run away from complexity UNLESS it involves sexuality or status. Human beings, even the dumbest among us, are drawn to these topics like moths to candles. But true complexity...no, I don't think most people seek it out. It's why our politics is composed of sound-bites, and our attention spans are about a micro-second long. What people really want is stimulation, and they aren't very picky about where they get it (e.g., 'reality' tv).

There's a reason why I used the word "sexy" in this context, Redwald--even though, generally speaking, I dislike the misappropriation and abuse of it. Yes, people DO like stimulation of all kinds and, until they train the impulse to seek out a higher sort of stimulation, the easier, the better. But the easy kind of stimulation gets boring after a while. I don't think that's very difficult to demonstrate and, thus, I don't think it's very difficult to awaken a longing in people for something better and higher than the crass and ordinary. Those who lack imagination in that realm or those who cynically (and, generally, falsely) posit themselves and their peers so far above the ordinary as to be beyond it, probably do find it difficult to get many people interested in the complexities of life. I'm sorry for them.

Technically we might be entering a phase where the adjective bubble is overused. But I do think that because of substitutes it is impossible for one bubble not to inflate another.

I personally recall previous to the recession that Mr. Hayward made a great call on Oil at $75, when it was at $140...in other words there was a bubble in Oil.

Then the shit started hitting the fan and real estate collapsed.

One model of pricing real estate involves measuring communiting costs/distance (highly corrolated with the price of fuel) to and from work.

Another model slightly better at pricing residential real estate, but worse at pricing commercial involves measuring the quality of the school district.

If there was a bubble in education, it certainly could have had an impact upon real estate values.

Also you could argue that there was a bubble in stock valuations in 2000, and this is why the period 2000-2010 was negative. The P.E. of stocks in 2010 is much lower than it was in 2000, the period 1995-1999 ate the hype and projected future growth of a decade. Microsoft is fundamentally a much better and richer company today, but its stock is worth much less.

A bubble inflates other bubbles, if there is a bubble in designer jeans, then maybe JC Penney can market its Arizona brand for $25, but when Levi's cost $20 at Wal Mart, Arizona jeans sales suffer.

A bubble occurs in part when you think that the value of something going forward will be much higher, this belief when widely shared gets extrapolated. I don't want to sell a $100,000 house that I think will be worth $200k in ten years, you will have to give me 160k say. Bubbles occur when you can reach out and capture future expected profits.

Education might very well have been in a bubble when it advertized the value of a college education at $1 million over a lifetime compared with the High School diploma. If there is demand in reliance upon such an expectation then a bubble is formed, because education at even $100k looks cheap. Currently the government is actually doing its best to crack down on the "bubble" in higher education, by applying stricter scrutiny to claims made by for profit education companies such as Devry, Washington Post, Kaplan, et al.

Of course in some sense the government is ignoring the much larger bubble in non-profit education that exploits the same government grant and financial loan incentives. Without a doubt the government props up the demand for education.

This is too general but it seems to me without exageration that education, housing and automobiles are fundamental protected property and policy interests in america. In many ways and justifiably so to an extent they are linked to freedom, mobility and upward mobility.

Your first car is a major step in the american game of life, to the extent that school uniforms would under Clintonesque policy provide a sense of equality between economic classes, at 16 you would still find out who has richer parents. Your first new car is also a major step, your first home a major step, and graduation from high school is still celebrated with open houses, and for many college graduation is a major event.

How important is the car? Well perhaps for teenagers the value of a car is culturally in a perma-bubble...that is when you are sixteen you immagine that a car will take you anywhere, that it is freedom made incarnate and it holds the promise of getting a better job, a better girlfriend, going on dates, being able to do "things".
At some point a car becomes a payment, an insurance premium, something that needs washed and new tires and a host of additional outlays.

I could go on but I digress...

When I graduated high school in 1977 I had absolutely no idea what education meant. My high school was simply awful. Awful.

My first term at college I was seriously concerned about flunking out. It took me two terms to learn how to study and how to approach education.

Looking back, I wish very much I had engaged the instructors more actively. Looking back, I wish I could have challenged them on certain things (gracefully, I would hope), and delve into the lower meanings of things.

Alas, that time is past. But now I am an instructor of sorts -- technical training -- and I try very hard to convey conceptual underpinnings and engage questions. Sadly, my students do not often respond. Sometimes, but not often.

I wish I'd gone to Ashland or Hillsdale. I probably would have flunked out. But had I not, I would be a better person.

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