Playing the Indian Card

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Higher Education Bubble: A Brief History

The Four Aging Lads in 1969.

This piece argues that the higher education bubble in the US—if you agree that there is a bubble—is caused by a shortage of suitable jobs, driving the price of admission for those jobs up.

I don’t think that is the real story.

The history suggests that the movement has been mostly on the supply, not the demand side. As Anne Coulter has pointed out, at the time of the Second World War, the average American had a grade eight education. But immediately after the Second World War, there was the GI Bill, causing a flood of 2.2 extra students who might well not otherwise have been able to afford a higher education. You can see the immediate effects on the culture. Pop culture began to assume a mass market with a college education: The Lettermen, The Four Freshmen, The Four Lads with “Moments to Remember,” the folk boom, the Bohemian musings of Salinger’s short stories.

While the GI Bill was US legislation, the influence of American culture was so great that its effects were felt everywhere; going to college became the normal thing. So too with further US legislation.

The GI Bill sent through a second wave of 1.2 million students after Korea. Add in the “Sputnik Crisis” of 1957. The US’s immediate response to this demonstration of Soviet scientific prowess was to funnel, in the National Defense Education Act, billions of additional dollars into colleges across the US. College funding in the US increased sixfold.

Actually, he had cause.

And then there were the Sixties. The GI Bill was extended to all veterans in the Sixties, and their families: 6.8 million extra collegians. Then there is the issue of the draft deferment given to college students during Vietnam. This too must have had the effect of convincing a huge cohort of young people who would not otherwise have considered it to hang on and get a college degree, or two, or even three.

And so, over a generation or so, 1945-1975, the Baby Boom generation, we have a wholesale manufacturing of new degrees and degree-holders—a glut on the supply side, regardless of demand.

That alone might account for the Sixties. Suddenly you had a whole lot of people going to college who in earlier generations would not have gone to college. People who did not necessarily have a great interest in scholarship or study or the intellectual enterprise.

This was probably a lousy idea.

First, this painfully extended period of dependency is cruel to youth. No wonder, then, that we saw stirrings of rebellion almost immediately, in the 50s, with the emergence of the disaffected teenager and the generation gap; reaching full bore in the 60s. The painfully extended adolescence also surely called forth, almost demanded, the sexual revolution. Since young people could not afford to marry, they sought release in casual sex. It was and is unreasonable to expect otherwise. Societies that really expect celibacy also permit marriage during adolescence. Hence the breakdown of the modern family.

Second, it probably caused the demographic winter we now face throughout the developed world, which really threatens to destroy Western civilization. On the one hand, couples are discouraged from having children by the knowledge that they will now have to support them well into adulthood, in addition to the crippling burdens of tuition. On the other, young people going through their multiple degrees must put off marriage and childbearing for longer. They cannot yet afford it.

Thirdly, the effect on higher education itself has been awful. This one really is a zero-sum game: you cannot raise IQs. More people coming into higher education means the average quality of college graduates and college courses must decline. Rather than raise the general standard of education, for the most part all we have really managed to do is to begin to do in 16 years what we used to do in 12. In particular, the draft deferment has prompted a lot of people to go into graduate school, and then college teaching, who are not themselves scholarly by nature.

This has led in turn to a growing class consciousness. We saw it almost immediately in the 50s: a divide between greasers, who did not go to college, and listened to doo-wop and rock and roll, and the college kids, who listened to folk and jazz and read beatnik poetry. This original divide has blossomed since into the full-scale “culture wars.” Weirdly, during their formative younger years ,the upper class had no money, while the lower class had some, because they already held jobs. This has caused an odd distortion in our politics, so that the rich professionals see themselves as "leftist," while the working poor, the "rednecks," are supposed to be "right-wing."

Meet the new upper class

Now that college is no longer about scholarship or the pursuit of knowledge, it has had to redefine itself, essentially, as a kind of initiation procedure into membership into the broad upper class, the clerical or professional class. One gets a college degree, and especially a higher degree, not by hard work or intelligence, but by conforming to the imposed consensus, to the group interest.

This is the value of the college degree now, and it explains why they are still preferred by employees, even though the actual skills and knowledge gained can seem irrelevant to the job. It demonstrates a reliable commitment to the class/profession. One is going to go along and is not going to rock the boat.

Of all these ill effects, the college tuition bubble, and the college debt bubble, are probably the last and least. But it seems about to make the whole edifice unsustainable.

Thank God.

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