Whenever I write something questioning the value of a college degree, I wonder: Do I sound like a philistine?
In a piece in yesterday’s Examiner (sorry to be late noticing it), Glenn Harlan Reynolds says succinctly what I have been trying to put into words for years:
The reason why a bachelor's degree on its own no longer conveys intelligence and capability is that the government decided that as many people as possible should have bachelor's degrees.
I wish I'd said that. Reynolds continues:
There's something of a pattern here. The government decides to try to increase the middle class by subsidizing things that middle class people have: If middle class people go to college and own homes, then surely if more people go to college and own homes, we'll have more middle class people.
But homeownership and college aren't causes of middle-class status, they're markers for possessing the kinds of traits — self-discipline, the ability to defer gratification, etc. — that let you enter, and stay in, the middle class.
Subsidizing the markers doesn't produce the traits; if anything, it undermines them. One might as well try to promote basketball skills by distributing expensive sneakers.
Unlike President Obama and Nancy Pelosi, I really, really don’t see much good in Occupy Wall Street. Except this: in alternately complaining that their college degrees didn’t get them jobs and then asking us to pick up the tab for said degrees, the Occupiers have put a spotlight on the crisis in higher education.
The crisis has arisen because we haven't answered two questions: Why is a college education so expensive? Is it worth the money? In asking the second question, I am not for a moment discounting the value of, say, a degree in ancient Greek, which probably would show a certain degree of capability, which could be attractive to an employer. But I am asking why the degree costs so much.
Reynolds proposes that higher education should provide more value for less money and that, if college loans are to continue, they must be restructured. This does not involve our repaying them for a total stranger; it involves setting a five year time limit on repayment. Defaults should be costly for colleges, not taxpayers.
The other thing to realize is that not everybody needs to go to college.
Many people will prosper if they go into trades.
I can imagine that Occupy Wall Street types might turn up their noses at this suggestion, which is just one more reason not to bail them out on their college loans.