When the Tide Goes Out, You Find Out Who’s Been Swimming Naked

Five Things You Need to Read Today

1. When the Tide Goes Out, You Find Out Who’s Been Swimming Naked

After all the chaos of the election, I wanted to take an edition just to catch up on some news that slipped through the cracks over the past few months.

The biggest non-election news is the coronavirus pandemic, which is roaring back for a brutal third wave, and I’ll be devoting a separate edition to that next week. For now, I want to cover an under-appreciated aspect of the pandemic: It is finally bursting the higher education bubble.

There has been a lot of speculation in recent years about higher education being yet another economic “bubble,” like the housing market in the late 2000s. As with housing, decades of subsidies and government-back loans intended to make college “affordable” actually made it more expensive, driving tuition rates up by 400% over a period of 30 years. If something cannot go on forever, it won’t, so colleges faced an eventual reckoning in which bloated tuition–and bloated administrative payroll, which is where a lot of that money got soaked up–would eventually have to fall back to earth.

As of a few years ago, here’s what it looked like: “The higher-education market is not bursting, like a popped soap bubble; but it is leaking, like a pierced balloon.”

The pandemic is speeding this up. Major crises tend to do that. I remember talking with a friend in the late 2000s about how print publications were fading in favor of digital media, which is why I was retooling my own work. But then the financial crisis hit in 2008, and a transition that looked it was going to phase in over a decade happened almost overnight.

That’s what the pandemic is doing to higher education, as people are balking at the prospect of paying tens of thousands of dollars a year for their kids to watch lectures on Zoom. This has prompted memes comparing the price of college to the prices of other online video streaming services.

Hence a wave of layoffs that started over the summer.

The rest of this edition is available only by e-mail to paid subscribers.

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