There is continuing controversy over whether there is a higher-education bubble, but higher ed has definitely been “in the bubble” for a long time, deliberately sealed off from any connection to its underlying economic value.
Consider a report on recent attempt by several state governments to gather data on the earnings prospects of graduates from different schools and in different majors. What struck me most was the bar graph comparing the annual tuition at the University of Virginia with average salary 18 months after graduation.
The engineering degrees are clearly good investments, with average salaries between $50,000 and $60,000, while a degree in biology is at the bottom, with an average salary of $27,000.
But notice that what remains unchanged in every bar in the graph is tuition: $25,000. Which raises the question: what kind of product costs the same regardless of its commercial value? In what other area of life would you spend the same amount on a philosophy degree, which qualifies you to tend bar or drive a cab, and a degree in computer science or economics, which qualifies you to go straight to Silicon Valley or Wall Street?
And note the tone of defensive panic among university panjandrums who are opposed to the very act of collecting this data.
College administrators say the data collection will discourage students from choosing majors such as English, philosophy, and art history. They fear that states might also use the data to withhold public funding for programs with low earning prospects. “Everything that can be counted doesn’t necessarily count,” says Flanagan.
In other words, countless young people have to be saddled with unsustainable debt so that a bunch of humanities types can maintain the fiction that their woozy platitudes are superior to the scientific and technical knowledge of the engineers.
I don’t disparage the humanities, mind you, though I do disparage the way they are currently practiced in the universities. That’s why I hope that the bursting of the higher-education bubble and the crackup of the university monopoly will lead to a decoupling of technical education from the humanities, simply because they don’t have anywhere near the same measurable economic value and therefore shouldn’t be packaged together and priced the same.
When that bubble pops, an awful lot of humanities professors are going to find themselves thrust out into the marketplace, where they will actually have to justify the value of their product.