“Higher Ed Bubble” Goes Mainstream

Another article on the “higher education bubble” (think housing bubble, but with college degrees) from that screaming right-wing rag The Christian Science Monitor. (That was meant as sarcasm.)

A college degree once looked to be the path to prosperity. In an article for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy writes, “Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.”

“Administrative bloat” is real. At many big universities, the administrators now outnumber the teaching faculty.

At the other end of the spectrum, the small liberal-arts college that I attended has about the same number of students than it did a few years ago, but it now seems to require more deans and assistant deans to operate.

At least Reed College has not wasted money on big football stadiums full of empty seats like so many universities.

Universities keep raising tuition. Students get easy, taxpayer-guaranteed loans to pay that tuition, because a college degree is a Good Thing.

Can’t pay off the loan? Too bad. Not even personal bankruptcy will make it go away—the banks saw to it that the law was written that way. And no one can foreclose on your bachelor’s or master’s degree.

So what if people stop climbing on this particular merry-go-ground? What happens to all those assistant deans and the big, empty football stadium then? What happens to all my friends trying to get teaching jobs? What happens to me hoping that someone will adopt my book as a class text? What happens to my publisher?

The linked Tech Crunch article is even more hard-hitting.

Next thing, National Public Radio will discover this issue.

10 Comments

  1. James Bulls says:

    I’ve been trying to finish a college degree for years but I’ve been so worried to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt that I’ve stopped looking for a college who’ll accept my credits and help me finish. It’s easy to see why school tuition went up so high what with all the subsidies and gov’t loans, but what I’m worried about is that the cost of tuition won’t go down if and when the education bubble bursts. I’m also worried that the bail-outs we saw going to the banks and auto manufacturers the last few years will soon be the bail-outs going to colleges and universities; I mean, what politician would ever want to be blamed for letting a school collapse?

  2. Chas Clifton says:

    Would tuition costs drop? Normally economists like to say that “prices are sticky,” but in a situation where institutions are competing for students, I think we will see some price cuts. That is just my guess, however.

    The problem, as the linked article from Tech Crunch makes clear, is that high tuition = prestige, even if most students do not pay the full rate.

    “And that ripples down to other private colleges and universities. At an event two weeks ago, I met Geoffrey Canada, one of the stars of the documentary Waiting for Superman. He talked about a college he advises that argued they couldn’t possible cut their fees for the simple reason that people would deem them to be less-prestigious.”

  3. Chas Clifton says:

    Yeah, sounds like vintage Chomsky. Vintage 1971. If he wants to worry about “corporate assault,” he ought to talk about all the for-profit outfits like the University of Phoenix that exist chiefly to get those federally guaranteed student-loan dollars, graduation rate be damned.

    Has he had an original thought on politics since the end of the Vietnam War?

  4. What worries me the most is the fact that jobs that required just a bachelor’s degree five years ago are now requiring a master’s degree. Why? Because everyone has a bachelor’s degree. I feel like I have been wasting my time getting a bachelor’s degree (non-traditional student here), especially considering that I have been unemployed and taking out loans for the entire thing.

  5. Chas Clifton says:

    “Everyone” does not have a bachelor’s degree; in fact, only (!) 27.5 percent of adults 25 or older have one, says the Census Bureau

    But if those are your competitors, and you get a master’s degree, then it drops to something like 7 percent, as I recall.

    As an old friend tried to tell me in the 1980s, when we were younger and cared less, we are in the “certification society.” Or not, if you are truly entrepreneurial.

  6. Erik says:

    Next thing, National Public Radio will discover this issue.

    Oh, they have…

  7. I have been following the higher ed bubble very closely. And I see a lot of folks talking about administrative bloat, which is real. Not a lot about WHY there is administrative bloat. I would bet that a lot of administrative bloat is caused by increased reporting requirements and accreditation issues.

    A growing trend in schools/colleges of education and business are to have dedicated assessment folks because the data needs to maintain accreditation are upped every year. There are also increased reporting to the feds, the states, even the NCAA on the university level. Even the accrediting bodies have to seek accreditation from the feds. In order to get in the guidebooks, you have to be accredited by X or by Y. Accreditation, while it has some beneficial uses, is mainly something that is now designed to create another exclusive club and something to put on a website.

    Long story short, there is administrative bloat but it’s being caused by increased regulation, rules, and reporting. It used to be that a faculty member working part-time could handle reporting, but with the increasing complexity of that reporting, they just plain don’t have time and so you have to have a dedicated administrator to handle it.

  8. Chas Clifton says:

    I am with you part way, MC. Part way. Yes, federal law, etc. has undoubtedly driven the rise in people working in assessment and institutional research. It might even explain people with titles like “Assistant Dean for Inclusion, Engagement, and Success.” (How were students ever successful before they had one of those?) But it does not explain all the new assistant deans and directors of this and that special project and, as mentioned, the situation where administrators outnumber people in the classroom.

  9. Chas,
    You’re right on the special projects, etc. It’s the same reason that local, state, and federal agencies become so bloated–creeping administrivia. Instead of just changing someone’s job description to include new duties, they hire someone new but they never cut projects or people unless forced to.