Last week the Obama administration “offered its first public glimpse” of a college rating system designed to measure affordability, accessibility and academic progress. Of course, as the Department of Education noted in its announcement of a “draft framework,” it’s kind of tricky to actually rate some of the things it wants to rate:
[M]any of the factors that contribute to a high quality postsecondary education are intangible, not amenable to simple and readily comparable quantitative measures, and not the subject of existing data sources that could be used across all institutions. Foremost among these are learning outcomes, which are central to understanding the value of an education but vary widely across programs and institutions and are communicated in many different ways.
Nevertheless, President Obama’s efforts to assess the voodoo that higher education does so well dovetails nicely with libertarian and conservative rhetoric claiming that we are in the midst of a higher ed bubble. Leading this charge has been investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who argued the following in The Washington Post a few months ago:
[E]ducation has taken the place of housing. If a college degree always means higher wages, then everyone should get a college degree: That’s the conventional wisdom encapsulated by Obama. But how can everyone win a zero-sum tournament? No single path can work for everyone, and the promise of such an easy path is a sign of a bubble….
Higher education holds itself out as a kind of universal church, outside of which there is no salvation. Critics are cast as heretics or schismatics endangering the flock. But our greatest danger comes from the herd instinct that drives us to competition and crowds out difference.
A Reformation is coming, and its message will be the same as it was 500 years ago: Don’t outsource your future to a big institution. You need to figure it out for yourself.
Now your humble blogger has ranted and raved against the “higher ed bubble” meme for a few years now, and yet the rhetoric seems to persist. Its boosters used to talk a lot about MOOCs displacing bricks-and-mortar colleges — until the MOOCs themselves turned out to possess bubble-like properties. So maybe traditional teaching formats outperform MOOCs or “flipped” classrooms.
More recently, higher ed bubble proponents have hammered home the observation that college enrollments have declined for the past two years as proof of the bubble being ready to burst. This fact is true — but as this Bloomberg News write-up shows, all you have to do is scratch the surface a little bit to realize that this figure means the opposite of what higher ed bubble believers think it means:
Enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities declined in 2013 for the second straight year as registrations in two-year colleges tumbled.
College enrollment dropped 2.3 percent to 19.5 million, a decline of 463,000, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released today. Enrollment in two-year colleges fell 9.6 percent to 5.27 million students, while four-year college enrollment rose 1.2 percent, according to the report (emphases added).
If potential college attendees really thought college was overpriced, they’d be shifting from expensive, four-year programs to less expensive two-year programs. But that hasn’t been happening. A fair number of people are rejecting associate degrees altogether, and some of these people are embracing four-year degrees instead. That’s not a harbinger of a bursting bubble.
To be fair, I get what Thiel et al are saying; there probably are some younglings, or some specialties, where a traditional college education is the suboptimal track. And goodness knows I’m not going to claim that the higher education establishment has it all figured out.
Rather, I part ways with Thiel et al on two fronts. The first is their notion that technology will somehow disrupt the complex bundle of goods that come with a four-year college education. Anything is possible, but as the Department of Education noted above, if it’s tough to parse out the benefits that accrue from college, then it’s going to be very difficult for new technological entrants to compete with traditional institutions of higher learning.
The second, which follows from the first, is Thiel et al’s implicit belief that the traditional college education doesn’t work for the modal student. I don’t care how many times you read “Atlas Shrugged,” the truth is that most people don’t want to be entrepreneurs — and for those people, the rewards of a college education have never been greater.
So the more I read about it, the more convinced I am that the “higher ed bubble” assertion is based on techno-utopian predictions or anecdotal/skewed information to back it up.
That’s just my opinion, however — so what distinguishes me from Thiel et al? I’m willing to propose a bet about it.
If, in fact, there really is a higher ed bubble, it should pop before 2020. And if it does pop, then tuition prices for college should plummet as demand slackens. After all, that’s how a bubble works — when it deflates, the price of the asset should plummet in value, like housing in 2008.
So who wants to bet me that an average of the 2020 tuition rates at Stanford University, Williams College, Texas A&M and the University of Massachusetts-Lowell will be lower than today?
I’m open to changing the particular schools, but those four are a nice distribution of private and public schools, elite and not-quite-as-elite colleges, with some geographic spread. Surely, true believers in a higher ed bubble would expect tuition rates at those schools to fall.
I really don’t think that will be the case. So anyone who believes in a higher ed bubble should be happy to take the other side of that bet.
Smart observers will recognize that the contours of this bet resemble the Paul Ehrlich/Julian Simon bet about commodity prices from a few decades ago. You might think me the fool for offering to take Ehrlich’s side of this wager. That’s fine, but my basic point is that a college education isn’t as undifferentiated or substitutable a good as copper or tin (plus, while his logic was sound, Simon was also lucky).
So consider this a triple dog dare, higher ed bubble proponents:
If you don’t take the bet, that’s fine — but then just shut the hell up about a higher ed bubble, and admit that what you’re really advocating is a War on College.