I have a controversial theory about higher education in the U.S. I think that the entire system is headed for collapse. Already, the system of higher education is a house of cards. The cost of getting a college degree has risen sharply and steadily, while real income has remained relatively flat. College costs have risen much faster than inflation, and faster even than medical costs.
Why have college costs risen so much? Government intervention. Congress has made loans and grants for college widely available. The U.S. Department of Education boasts: “We offer more than $150 billion each year to help millions of students pay for higher education.” Now I’m not against higher education, nor am I against education loans and grants. The problem is the amount of money, and the ease with which it is obtained.
For almost any other loan, there is some type of calculation as to whether you will be able to pay back the money. Otherwise, you don’t get the loan. But for college loans, they push out tens of billions of dollars in order to meet political objectives. More money for education is popular on the campaign trail, and cutting money for education is highly unpopular.
Why is this a problem? Remember the housing loan crisis a few years back. Congress pushed banks into giving low interest loans to people who really could not afford to pay them back. Then housing prices fell, and the economy had a downturn. The result was that people owed more money on their houses than they were worth, and they could neither sell the house, nor afford to pay their mortgage. This subprime mortgage crisis, as it was called, had grave repercussions for the U.S. economy.
Well, now the same thing is happening with college loans. The price of college tuition as well as room and board have risen very sharply because loans and grants are plentiful. These institutions of higher education charge more and more money, and people keep paying. There is a strong cultural mandate to get a college degree. And money is easily available. If people had to actually pay for college, as they went along, you would see these institutions finding ways to keep prices affordable, otherwise they would lose students.
But it’s too late now. The entire system is predicated on high salaries for college faculty and staff, as well as excess spending on infrastructure. If universities tried to lower pay to make tuition affordable, the faculty would strike. If Congress tried to reduce spending on educational loans and grants, the students would protest. There is no easy fix.
All it will take is some type of economic disaster, and the entire system will fall apart. An economic disaster would make many families unwilling to take on large amounts of additional debt. It would also cause college costs to jump even higher. And it would make the prospects of a good paying job after college, by which one might pay back the loans, much less likely.
We would then see the number of persons applying to college fall dramatically, resulting in competition for students. Initially, this would probably be met with the counter-productive strategy of making more money more available. But that tactic will only delay the inevitable. Many colleges and universities will go bankrupt, laying off massive numbers of faculty and staff. A large number of young persons will need jobs, increasing competition for jobs and skyrocketing unemployment. Colleges that dramatically cut costs will have to contend with faculty strikes and student protests. Eventually, Congress will cut back on loans and grants substantially. Many college institutions will be mothballed.
Those that survive will have to offer quality learning at modest costs. Students will have to consider working during the day, and taking classes at night.
A serious cultural problem is also weighing on the college system in the U.S. Not only is there a severe liberal bias, with open hostility toward conservative views, but any expression whatsoever that is counter-cultural, or deemed offensive, is treated as if it were a crime. A college student was banned for 6 months (originally 21 months) for a single obnoxious comment made on YikYak (social media). A liberal Yale lecturer was forced to resign because she made a comment that perhaps we should allow young people to occasionally be a little inappropriate with Halloween costumes.
And here’s a strange one: “The faculty council at Occidental College is considering instituting a system for students to report microaggressions perpetrated against them by faculty members or other students.” [Reason.com] What is microaggression? “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” So basically you can be accused of an offense, and disciplined by the college, for “unintentional” and/or “non-verbal” perceived slights. Not only does this run contrary to freedom of speech, but it makes people afraid to inadvertently express the slightest perceived negativity. It’s cultural totalitarianism.
Eventually, reasonable persons will not be willing to go to college, because of the excessive costs and also the hostility toward freedom of speech.