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.