The Higher Education Bubble
Simple economics may force a reexamination of the reigning dogma that every American needs a college education.


Michael Barone


Imagine that you have a product whose price tag for decades has risen faster than inflation. But people keep buying it because they’re told that it will make them wealthier in the long run. Then, suddenly, they find it doesn’t. Prices fall sharply, bankruptcies ensue, great institutions disappear.

Sound like the housing market? Yes, but it also sounds like what Glenn Reynolds, creator of, writing in the Washington Examiner, has called “the higher education bubble.”

Government-subsidized loans have injected money into higher education, as they did into housing, causing prices to balloon. But at some point people figure out they’re not getting their money’s worth, and the bubble bursts.

Some think this would be a good thing. My American Enterprise Institute colleague Charles Murray has called for the abolition of college for almost all students. Save it for genuine scholars, he says, and let others qualify for jobs by standardized national tests, as accountants already do.

“Is our students learning?” George W. Bush once asked, and the evidence for colleges points to no. The National Center for Education Statistics found that most college graduates are below proficiency in verbal and quantitative literacy. University of California scholars Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks report that students these days study an average of 14 hours a week, down from 24 hours in 1961.

The American Council of Alumni and Trustees concluded, after a survey of 714 colleges and universities, that, “by and large, higher education has abandoned a coherent content-rich general education curriculum.”

Students are no longer taught the basics of literature, history, or science. ACTA reports that most schools don’t require a foreign language, hardly any require economics, American history and government “are badly neglected,” and schools “have much to do” on math and science.

ACTA’s website provides the grisly details for each school, together with the cost of tuition. Students and parents can see if they will get their money’s worth.

That’s also a goal of Strive for College, which encourages young people of minority backgrounds to go to college. Its website lets students look up the percentage of similarly situated applicants admitted to each college — and, perhaps more important, the percentage that graduate.

Transparency could undermine the numerous “dropout factories,” public and private, described and listed by the liberal Washington Monthly. More than 90 percent of students there never graduate, but most end up with student-loan debt.

Increasing transparency is hitting the colleges and universities at the same time they are getting squeezed financially. They saw their endowments plunge as the stock market fell, and they got stuck with illiquid investments. State governments have raised tuition at public schools, but the schools’ budgets have still declined. Competition from for-profit universities, with curricula oriented to job opportunities, has been increasing.

People are beginning to note that administrative bloat, so common in government, seems to have become especially egregious in colleges and universities. Somehow previous generations got by and even prospered without these legions of counselors, liaison officers, and facilitators. Perhaps we can do so again.