John Stossel’s column on the absurdity of incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to spend four years getting drunk while barely paying attention in class is an opportunity to plug my friend Andrew Ferguson’s book, “Crazy U.” Andy’s not as skeptical of college as are Stossel, businessman Peter Thiel and economist Richard Vedder. But his tales of helping his son apply to college are hilarious and illuminating nonetheless.
There’s a parallel between the housing bubble and the college bubble. For decades, elites in government and business have pushed the idea that no one is truly American unless he owns — rather, mortgages — a home. Rates of homeownership increased, but so did mortgage debt and the subprime-mortgage market. The truth is that owning a home is not necessarily the right decision for everyone. Circumstances matter. Resources can be allocated differently. Eventually, the bubble popped.
So, too, with a bachelor’s degree. For decades, the constant drumbeat has been that college is “an investment” that will pay off in higher future income. But such an argument easily conflates correlation with causation. People would still lead successful, productive lives if they entered the workforce or traveled the world or learned a trade rather than spend four years earning a degree in comparative literature. Here's a quote from Vedder, from Stossel's column:
Do kids learn anything at Harvard? People at Harvard tell us they do. . . . They were bright when they entered Harvard, but do . . . seniors know more than freshman? The literacy rate among college graduates is lower today than it was 15 or 20 year ago. It is kind of hard for people to respond in market fashion when you don't have full information.
The artificially stimulated demand for higher education is part of the reason tuition rates have skyrocketed. One day, I suspect, the tuition bubble will pop just as loudly as the housing bubble did.