Bursting the High Ed Bubble

Higher costs, lower benefits prompt reevaluation of college costs, experts say


The America’s Future Foundation hosted “Bursting the College Bubble: The Status of Higher Education Today” Thursday at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, where four experts discussed the increased debt burden young Americans face and questioned the value of higher education relative to its cost.

“A deception has led too many under-qualified students to enter college,” said the moderator, Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation.

Jenna Robinson from the Pope Center said, “Enrollment has increased fantastically” because “we hear that the bachelor’s degree is the ticket to the American dream.”

Since so many people enter college, however, “universities have dumbed down their curriculum.”

Robinson cited the book Academically Adrift, which argues that nearly half of college students had no “significant improvement in learning” by the end of their sophomore year. Some graduates “cannot write or orally communicate in an office at an acceptable level,” Robinson said.

Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, agreed. He suggested an “outside certification exam, tied to a school, to come up with a value-added measure for that school.”

The “fundamental characteristic” of an economic bubble is “unsustainable growth,” Gillen said. In higher education, such expansion comes in two areas: enrollment and costs.

“Unless benefits increase sufficiently, higher costs should suggest sending fewer people to college,” he said. Evidence shows that, while costs and enrollment increase, only “one third of students are able to graduate and use their degree in a meaningful sense.”

Gillen cited the work of Bob Samuels, who found that educating a student costs colleges only $1,456 per year, but “they charge an average of $7,000” from the student and $8,000 from the government.

“The economics of higher education are really dysfunctional,” he said. “The schools at the top of the heap don’t grow,” but compete for reputation and selectivity.

“That’s not going to be sustainable in the long run,” Gillen said.

Bill Glod, program officer for philosophy at the Institute for Humane Studies at George Mason University, said, “I think there’s a definite benefit if the bubble is burst.” He mentioned college students—and even graduate students—who express no interest in their degree’s specialty.

Ron Henry, president of the Boy’s Initiative, pointed to the “death by a thousand cuts” that men and boys face in modern American culture. College has become one of those cuts.

Fewer men than women graduate, he said. The Census Bureau reported that 916,000 women graduated from college in 2009, while only 685,000 men graduated.

“Deflation will begin when the government stops inflating” the college bubble, Henry said, because “when the market is allowed to operate,” many people will realize the cost.