Watching the bumbling spectacle of bureaucratic incompetence emanating out of Charlottesville put me in mind of that amusing old country and western song “First you say you will and then you won’t,/ Then you say you do and then you don’t,/ What are you going to do?” (Dum-dum-dum, Da-dum-dum-dum.) Let’s see: it’s June 10: “University of Virginia President Teresa A. Sullivan to step down.” Thus screameth the headline, and you didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to conclude that by “step down” the story meant “got the boot.”
But wait, that was last week. This week the news, at least the headline, is University of Virginia Reinstates President. I say “headline” and not “the news” because the real news here is the impending collapse of that house of cards known as the institution of higher education in the United States. As Anne Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, wrote in the WaPo, “higher education is on a collision course” — with fiscal reality. “Even though the United States spends more per higher-education student than any other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development nation, we have worse results.”
The cost of higher education, i.e., not the real cost but your tuition bill, has been rising at something close to 7.5% per year for decades. Why? Say hello to all those shiny new administrators, Mom. Dad, let me introduce you to this lavish pension over here, and let’s not forget the university president, who is paid the way a CEO of a major, for-profit corporation would like to be paid.
President Sullivan wanted to take it easy. She is for “incremental” change, i.e., change patterned on the movement of a glacier, that is, not only slow but also destructive.
Something’s got to give, Ms. Neal observes, “or everything will.”
Think about this: There are more and more elite institutions in this country where junior’s annual college bill starts with a 6, as in sixty-thousand dollars.
Oh, but what about the generous government loan programs? Yes, what about them? Total student-loan debt now tops $1 trillion. That’s more than total credit-card debt for the U.S. It is more than auto-loan debt, and at least when you go into hock for a BMW you get wheels.
The big question, bigger even than the sweat-inducing question about money: What do many, maybe most, students get from that four years of life-postponement laughably known as a “liberal arts education”? One thing, perhaps the chief concrete thing, many of them get is a mountain of debt — often it is more than $100,000 for the little piece of faux vellum embellished with the letters “B.A.” and some Latin words that four years of expensive holiday have left the poor graduate, who majored in “women’s studies” or some such voodoo inanity, unable to read.
Granted that’s not all you get from a typical college education. You also get four years of left-wing, anti-American indoctrination, guaranteed to root out all small-town “guns and religion” sentiment among your delicately brought up progeny or your money back.
Actually, no: you don’t get your money back: just kidding about that. But you can count on the higher education establishment to give it the old college try when it comes to indoctrinating your children in the entire “progressive” menu of attitudes and beliefs. You can count on them having graduated knowing more about “safe sex” than Seneca, more about the inequities of American society than its achievements, more about pop novels than Aristotle, Adam Smith, or Immanuel Kant, convinced of the relativism of all values except the value of relativism, about which they are doctrinaire absolutists.
I said that the American higher education establishment was a house of cards. It is precariously balanced and vulnerable like a house of cards. But a better image for the whole tumid mess is a bubble. The higher education system in this country is a grotesquely inflated bubble, a gaseous bladder filled by decades of preening, self-infatuated liberals who have battened on a diet of entitlement and fiscal irresponsibility washed down with frothy flagons of leftist attitudinizing. Already you can see that patient straining painfully under the load. What just happened in Virginia is a little preliminary toot of the unpleasant crepitation to come. It will not, when it bursts, be a pretty spectacle. Prepare yourself now with this apotropaic exercise: Glenn Reynolds’s The Higher Education Bubble. It begins by quoting the economist Herbert Stein: “Something that can’t go on forever, won’t.” The bloated, noxiously gas-filled, fiscally incontinent higher education bubble can’t go on forever. In a brisk 50-odd pages (or quick download), this hygienic analysis shows how we filled the bladder and outlines some of the ways it might deflate. What can’t go on won’t go on. Help prick this obscene bubble now. The Higher Education Bubble: lose it or rue it.