The Pin that Might Pop the Higher-Ed Bubble
Religion & Liberty Online

The Pin that Might Pop the Higher-Ed Bubble

I commented last week on the “textbook bubble” (here) and have commented in the past on the “higher-ed bubble” and the character of American education more generally (see here, here, and here). To briefly summarize, over the last few decades the quality of higher education has diminished while the cost and the number of people receiving college degrees has increased. The cost is being paid for, in large part, through government subsidized loans. But with the drop in quality and increase in quantity, a college degree is not as impressive as it used to be; in many cases it no longer signals to employers what it used to. When a critical mass of those loans goes into default, we will have another housing-bubble-esque crisis on our hands. At the same time, government loans, which are largely indiscriminate with regard to the risk of the applicant and guaranteed on the backs of taxpayers, have incentivized colleges and universities to raise the costs to students for the sake of increased expenditures, inflating the bubble even more. Now, Alex Williams of The New Times reports last Friday,

The idea that a college diploma is an all-but-mandatory ticket to a successful career is showing fissures. Feeling squeezed by a sagging job market and mounting student debt, a groundswell of university-age heretics are pledging allegiance to new groups like UnCollege, dedicated to “hacking” higher education. Inspired by billionaire role models, and empowered by online college courses, they consider themselves a D.I.Y. vanguard, committed to changing the perception of dropping out from a personal failure to a sensible option, at least for a certain breed of risk-embracing maverick.

An increasing number of students are realizing that they, to quote Good Will Hunting, do not want to be $150,000 in debt for an education that they could have gotten “for a $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”

Now, of course, not everyone can be Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg or Will Hunting, and not every career can do without higher-ed (I would not want a physician with a D.I.Y. education, for example). But for the many careers that have unnecessarily come to expect degrees, the enterprising activity of those who are passing on college to get an early start on building invaluable experience, connections, and hands-on knowledge without tens of thousands of dollars of debt from the starting gate may signal that the tides are changing for higher-ed. If more and more people prove to be just as marketable without a degree and have the experience to prove it, won’t employers catch on soon enough, rendering many degrees to be more useless than they already are? Is this the pin that will pop the bubble?

Well … maybe. In all likelihood, if the bubble pops a variety of factors will be to blame. And while I certainly do not think economic crises are good things, the hardship that will come if our society’s attitudes and practices toward debt do not change—whether toward school debt or otherwise (such as credit card debt or government debt)—may be precisely what we deserve for making unsustainable promises to whole generations that are proving to be more akin to Ponzi schemes while, at the same time, refusing to make the hard choices necessary to prevent the coming of such a crisis. No economic crisis will come that is not also moral and spiritual at its heart, and the popping of the higher-ed bubble will be no exception if—or more likely when—it happens.

For my part, I love higher education and hope for the best. On the other hand, I also love my generation and believe that we have a moral duty to do what we can to prevent future generations from ending up with such large debt and diminished opportunity as Millennials have inherited. If enough of these “risk-embracing maverick[s]” prove successful, not only will another path be open for many who struggle with whether or not college is worth the cost for them, but the enterprise of today’s “university-age heretics” may prove far more effective than college degrees in creating the wealth and jobs necessary to overcome any crisis that the future may hold. The fact that a growing number of intelligent young people are willing to take such entrepreneurial risks, though bad news for higher-ed, is good news for our society as a whole and ought to be welcomed, even encouraged.

Dylan Pahman

Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as executive editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in historical theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.