Higher Education Bubble Prediction

A little something at Instapundit caught my eye a few minutes ago, and set one of my few remaining wheels in motion. The headline reads, “The Value Gap: Americans Increasingly Question The Cost Of Going To College.” But the story says:

“The annual price tag for a college credential has risen about three times as fast as inflation, and there is no sign that it’s slowing down. In the last decade alone, tuition rates at public colleges and universities, which enroll about 80 percent of American students, rose by an average of 5.6 percentage points above inflation every year. . . . College presidents seem tone-deaf to those concerns. In a companion survey conducted with The Chronicle, three-fourths of college leaders said the system was providing a good or excellent value.”

Students increasingly see college as an expensive endeavor unlikely to bring rewards commensurate to its costs. Administrators think everything is just fine. Why the gap?

Two words: Easy credit.

As long as government guarantees free money to warm bodies, of course the deans will stay happy. But what happens when the warm bodies stop showing up? Well, here’s where it gets counter-intuitive: Tuition hikes will accelerate even faster than the current three-time-higher-than inflation. Gotta keep the money coming in. Gotta pay for that new stadium, even if it is half-empty. Gotta pay those outrageous salaries for all those unneeded administrators. Gotta keep the ivy looking just so.

Look, some degrees are inherently useful and will generate large salaries in most any economy. I’m thinking mostly here of engineering and practical sciences. These poor kids will have to pay up to get the sheepskins they need. And admins, used to riding the easy credit gravy train, will be happy to charge them all the traffic will bear — and then some. Meanwhile, we’ll be seeing far fewer 27-year-old baristas with advanced literature degrees.

Until, of course, the universities start charging even more than an aerospace engineering degree is worth, at which point the bubble pops. Although the 27-year-old barista with the advanced literature degree will probably be permanently consigned to the dustbin of history.