According to Bloomberg, the cost of college tuition has increased thirteen-fold since 1978—more than medical care, at nearly five times the rate of CPI. But that’s because a college education is five times as good now, right? Possibly not—anecdotes suggest that our universities have not become dramatically better at teaching than they were four decades ago, and the record number of bachelor degrees we’ve awarded has not necessarily yielded a smarter populace. It has, however, produced an enormous quantity of debt—Americans owe $1.2 trillion in student loans, compared to just under $900 billion in credit-card debt. The class of 2015 is graduating with an average of $35,00 in debt per borrower; meanwhile, 46% of recent college graduates are working jobs that do not require degrees.
That’s why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders: because this situation is intractable, and I might as well invest myself in futile gestures. Free college in the United States is probably not going to happen soon. But it has already happened in several European countries, much like free health care. Come to think of it, the growth in cost, contribution to personal debt and international peculiarity of our education system make it remarkably similar to health care, as a policy issue. So we’re going to argue bitterly over an Affordable College Act, right?
Maybe not. Unlike setting your broken arm, a bachelor’s degree is not strictly necessary. The nation that insisted everyone go to college 35 years ago has begun to argue that it’s not worth it. Note that this argument is almost purely financial: it costs a certain amount to complete school, and that amount might exceed the earning advantage of holding a four-year degree.
To recap: for four decades or so, we encouraged everyone to go to college. The comparative advantage of a bachelor’s degree declined because everyone was getting them, even as cost increased. At a certain point of saturation, a college degree became the job-market equivalent of a high school diploma—except it cost $35,000.
Of course, this construction ignores that value of an educated citizenry. From an employer’s perspective, the contemporary college graduate may be no better than the high school graduate of 1950. But from the perspective of the American experiment—in discourse and in the electorate’s ability to wisely manage a complicated nation—skills like critical thinking and ethical reasoning are invaluable.
You want your voters to know as much and think as hard as they possibly can, so that America succeeds. The alternative is to fall back on favoritism from god and/or a gigantic military. The problem with this criterion is that it is not quantifiable in the same way as earnings statistics. And while the ratio of tuition costs to marginal increase in earnings neatly measures college’s value to the individual, we lack a comparable metric to determine the college-educated individual’s value to society.
That’s a problem, since any change to the present system is likely to involve some socialization of costs. Correction: any change that preserves the liberal arts is likely to involve that. We could reduce the scope of university majors to engineering, computer science, welding/automotive repair and other useful arts. That might make college graduates richer, but it wouldn’t address the problem of making them wise. Nor would it correct a tuition/loan structure that increasingly resembles indentured servitude.
Right now, we’re telling young people that they need college degrees to get good jobs and then charging them a year’s income for the privilege. From a cynical perspective, the cost of becoming a useful worker is working for free. Kids whose parents can afford to pay their tuition get the training without the debt setback; essentially, they inherit a position in the middle class. We encourage the rest to study hard and transcend their socioeconomic backgrounds, but we deny them the benefits of upward mobility for a while after they do.
Here we encounter another fun conflict between liberty and equality. By stopping free education at 12th grade, we leave more tax dollars in people’s pockets and increase each individual’s control over his own resources. But in an economy where a bachelor’s degree is de rigueur, we’re charging the people who can least afford it a fee to work.
It’s hard not to see that system as exploitive, especially given its massive and ill-explained cost increase over the last 35 years. A college education costs more and is worth less. Maybe we’re teaching five times better than we were in the late seventies, or maybe we’ve just created a desperate market. It’s sobering to consider what might happen when that market crashes. A housing collapse is one thing, but what would an education collapse look like?