President Obama says “the best economic policy is one that produces more college graduates.” For colleges, unlike the American people, it may be the best policy: colleges have been able to increase tuition faster than inflation, year after year, secure in the knowledge that they can rake in ever-rising government subsidies and skyrocketing tuition. Students have little choice but to pay inflated tuition bills to the education industrial-complex, as they vie with each other for scarce entry-level jobs by acquiring ever more degrees that show their ability to jump through hoops and master difficult (but largely useless) skills.
But is this educational arms race really good for America?
Does America really need 8,000 waiters with doctoral or professional degrees? Do 5,057 janitors really need their advanced degrees? Millions of Americans alreadyhave useless college degrees.
The president seems oblivious of the fact that “some of the most successful entrepreneurs in modern America, including Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Apple’s Steve Jobs, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Enterprise Rent-a-Car’s Jack Taylor, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, Dell computer’s Michael Dell, movie and music producer David Geffen, and Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson — are not college graduates.”
The economy, after all, is not producing that many jobs for which liberal arts degrees are useful.
Across the world, instability has resulted when people’s educational levels outstripped their job prospects. In Sri Lanka, rising educational levels among impoverished young people fueled the deadly Marxist JVP insurgency. In Tunisia, riots followed rapidly-rising college graduation rates not matched by economic growth; many college graduates there are deeply dissatisfied with the low-skilled jobs they ended up with. The rioting followed the self-immolation of a college graduate forced to eke out a humbling existence as a low-paid peddler. Underemployed college graduates also rioted in other Middle Eastern countries.
As law professor Glenn Reynolds notes, subsidizing the higher education bubble is as stupid as the government subsidies that helped fuel the housing bubble:
“The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle-class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we’ll have more middle-class people. But homeownership and college aren’t causes of middle-class status, they’re markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay, in the middle class. Subsidizing the markers doesn’t produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them.”
My three years at Harvard Law School gave me a prestigious but educationally-empty credential, that I used to beat other competitors in the rat race, since the federal judge who hired me to assist him would only hire graduates of Harvard, Berkeley, or Stanford. But otherwise Harvard taught me virtually nothing of value.
I learned far more in six weeks of studying for the bar exam after law school, and two summers of working for law firms, than I ever learned in law school itself. Students are learning much less in college than they used to, even as federal and state education spending has skyrocketed. As tuition rose, Wake Forest University increased spending on its administrators by 600 percent.