The true cost of higher education

Malcolm Harris writes at n+1 about the next economic bubble in the U.S. after the housing bubble: the student debt bubble.

Since 1978, the price of tuition at US colleges has increased over 900 percent, 650 points above inflation. To put that number in perspective, housing prices, the bubble that nearly burst the US economy,  then the global one, increased only fifty points above the Consumer Price Index during those years. But while college applicants’ faith in the value of higher education has only increased, employers’ has declined. According to Richard Rothstein at The Economic Policy Institute, wages for college-educated workers outside of the inflated finance industry have stagnated or diminished. Unemployment has hit recent graduates especially hard, nearly doubling in the post-2007 recession. The result is that the most indebted generation in history is without the dependable jobs it needs to escape debt.

What kind of incentives motivate lenders to continue awarding six-figure sums to teenagers facing both the worst youth unemployment rate in decades and an increasingly competitive global workforce?

Harris goes into all the reasons why the cost of education has exploded, and why it's not likely to end anytime soon, and this all leads to his less than sanguine conclusion:

If tuition has increased astronomically and the portion of money spent on instruction and student services has fallen, if the (at very least comparative) market value of a degree has dipped and most students can no longer afford to enjoy college as a period of intellectual adventure, then at least one more thing is clear: higher education, for-profit or not, has increasingly become a scam.

To me, the real tragedy of so many higher education programs is that they saddle students with so much debt that they have no choice but to consider salary as a first-order criterion for their choice of profession. When the real problem that an institution of higher education should aspire to is to teach us how to live and engage with the world, and to teach us how to be both children and adults at once. The best of my college days blended lessons in adult responsibility (how to take care of yourself without your parents as a backstop) with encouragement that the best way to pursue intellectual adventure was to follow your curiosity wherever it led.