November 15, 2012


If the conservative bubble-poppers are a movement, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee and a prominent blogger, has written its manifesto. All three of the posts linked to above refer to Reynolds, and George Will has also embraced his argument. The Higher Education Bubble (Encounter Books, 2012) is an Encounter Broadside, one of a series of pamphlets meant to “have an important effect” on policy debates, and so it has. Reynolds is a libertarian, not a conservative, but higher education’s conservative critics have joined him in not only predicting that the higher education bubble will burst but also impatiently seeking to burst it.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing how important I am! However, I’m accused, more or less, of philistinism for suggesting that when college has a six-figure price tag, it has to produce enough earnings to pay off on the investment. The problem is that, well, it does have to. If you’re rich enough that you can spend the price of a fancy sports car on what’s basically a consumption item like, well, a fancy sports car, then you can afford to ignore that. Otherwise, not so much. Don’t blame me, blame skyrocketing tuition. But it gets worse.

As I note in the book, research indicates that today’s graduates are learning less, studying less, and yet paying more for college. What’s more, that underperforming education is supported by an increasingly unstable mountain of debt. It’s fine to study things that won’t earn you a living — just don’t borrow money to do it. Unfortunately, at most schools, most people will have to borrow money if they are to attend.

Liberal arts programs that turn out students who can read critically, think analytically, and write clearly and concisely have a good shot at producing good earnings, as people who can do all those things are surprisingly hard to find. But such programs are not nearly as common as they should be.

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