“Like all booms, higher education has been fueled by credit.”
Conversely, easy, cheap credit fools entrepreneurs into believing that society’s collective time preference has fallen, enticing them into investing in higher-order goods, such as land, factories, and the like — when in fact the collective time preference hasn’t changed, and the demand for higher-order goods is merely a mirage. The result is booms and busts rather than genuine growth.
College degrees are similar to what the Austrians call higher-order goods. It’s thought that a student will gain knowledge and seasoning in college that will make him or her more productive and a candidate for a high-paying career. The investment of time and money in knowledge pays through higher productivity and is translated into higher income. Higher education is the higher-order means to a successful career.
PayPal founder and early Facebook investor Peter Thiel, questioning the value of higher education, tells TechCrunch,
A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.
The excesses of both college and homeownership were always excused by a core national belief that, no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.
The New York Times‘ David Leonhardt even claims,
Construction workers, police officers, plumbers, retail salespeople and secretaries, among others, make significantly more with a degree than without one. Why? Education helps people do higher-skilled work, get jobs with better-paying companies or open their own businesses.
Using data from the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, Leonhardt asserts that dishwashers with college degrees make $34,000 a year while those without make $19,000.
No employer in their right mind would pay nearly double for a dishwasher with a college degree. However, there are plenty of fresh college graduates cobbling together multiple low-level jobs just to make ends meet.
“More college graduates are working in second jobs that don’t require college degrees,” writes Hannah Seligson in the New York Times, “part of a phenomenon called ‘mal-employment.’ In short, many baby-sitters, sales clerks, telemarketers and bartenders are overqualified for their jobs.”
Nearly 2 million college graduates were mal-employed last year, up 17 percent from 2007. Nearly half of all college graduates are working at a job not requiring a degree.
In the United States, 80,000 bartenders as well as 317,000 waiters and waitresses have college degrees. Nearly a quarter of all retail salespersons have a college degree. In all, 17 million Americans with college degrees are working at jobs that do not require a bachelor’s degree.
“Young college graduates working multiple jobs is a natural consequence of a bad labor market and having, on average, $20,000 worth of student loans to pay off,” said Carl E. Van Horn, director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers.
“The median starting salary for those who graduated from four-year degree programs in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those who graduated in 2006 to 2008, before the recession,” Seligson writes, adding, “Try living on $27,000 a year — before taxes — in a city like New York, Washington or Chicago.”
Like all booms, higher education has been fueled by credit. In June of last year, total student-loan debt exceeded total credit-card debt outstanding for the first time, totaling more than $900 billion.
“Not only are the returns poor, but the quality of the product is poor.”
All of this credit has pushed the average cost of tuition up 440 percent in the last 25 years, more than four times the rate of inflation. But while the factors of production on campus have been bid up, just as they are in any other asset boom, the return on investment is a bust. In 1992, there were 5.1 million mal-employed college graduates. By 2008, the number was 17 million.
Not only are the returns poor, but the quality of the product is poor (as in the case of new-construction quality in the housing boom). According to the authors of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, 45 percent of students make no gains in their critical reasoning and thinking skills, as well as writing ability, after two years in college. More than one out of three college seniors were no better at writing and thinking than they were when they first arrived at their campuses.
Many projects contemplated and started during the real-estate boom are never completed, as prices are bid up, and owners run out of capital. Such is the case for many attending college, as over 45 percent of those who enroll as freshmen ultimately give up, realizing they lack the disciplinary and mental capital, and do not graduate.
Similar to the government push for increased homeownership, government is foursquare behind having more young people attend universities. One of President Obama’s top goals is to increase the number of Americans attending college.
But why? “Among the members of the class of 2010, just 56 percent had held at least one job by this spring, when the survey was conducted,” reported the Times recently. “That compares with 90 percent of graduates from the classes of 2006 and 2007.”
And because they can’t find jobs, 85 percent of college grads move back in with their parents after they graduate. According to a poll by Twentysomething Inc., a marketing and research firm based in Philadelphia, that rate has steadily risen from 67 percent in 2006.
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