Are We in a Higher Education Bubble?

Since World War II, we’ve made college the American dream.


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Answer by Daniel Kaplan, classroom teacher for 15 years:

In a way, yes. First, we have to look at how we have dealt with education and the pathways young people have historically taken. We could track it all the way back to when the middle class was largely composed of journeymen who worked their way through being apprentices to being masters, guildsmen, and business owners. We eventually marginalized this system more and more until it largely died at some point. It was pretty rare as we moved into the 20th century. We started pushing education quite a bit more. When we started offering free education for the brave men who fought for our country in World War I and World War II, we weakened that system even more and created huge numbers of college-educated Americans who once would have been part of the blue-collar workforce.

Since World War II, we have made college the American dream. I suspect the push may have resulted from our race with the Soviets and Sputnik. That satellite going over our heads made us feel impotent and started an education race. We changed our opinions on what made people “successful.”

For my parent’s generation, not finishing high school wasn’t such a huge deal. You could still very easily get gainful employment. It meant a fair amount of manual labor, but you could get by. For my generation, a missing diploma was a much more powerful blow to one’s earning potential, but it was survivable. Now, a high school diploma is so important that McDonald’s supposedly won’t take you without one, and according to our local recruiter, the military won’t accept a GED.

This appears to have watered down the value of a college degree. We are graduating more students than ever. Colleges are trying to grow their programs, “universities” are popping up all over the place, and colleges and the government are trying to maximize graduation rates and job placement. We’ve gotten to the point where junior colleges are now going to offer full bachelor’s degrees where they once were only able to offer associate’s degrees, just so that we can lower the cost of certain programs and create more seats.

At the same time, the cost of a college education is going up and up at an unsustainable rate. In the 20 years since I finished my bachelor’s, the cost has tripled, but the pay has not. I think the pay for a beginning teaching position was about $36,000 and is now $45,000. That’s only a 25 percent increase.

This can only go on for a certain amount of time. At some point the value of an education and fear of incurring a huge, unforgivable, and unpayable debt will have some kind of catastrophic effect upon the system. What that effect will be is impossible for me to predict.

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