As Occupy Wall Street fades into a miasma of filth and criminality, only one of their complaints echoes with any validity for me: their contention that their college degrees were all too often meaningless.

Charles Murray, the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute (and author of a buzz-engendering new book), addressed the issues of why a degree means so little and costs so much at a recent lecture at Hillsdale College. Title of the talk: “Do We Need the Department of Education?”

The talk focused on K-12 education. But Murray was particularly interesting on the value of a college degree. If anything, his assessment was even bleaker than that of OWS:

The bachelor of arts degree as it has evolved over the last half-century has become the work of the devil. It is now a substantively meaningless piece of paper—genuinely meaningless, if you don’t know where the degree was obtained and what courses were taken.

The B.A. isn’t entirely meaningless, however, because it has become the minimum requirement for getting a job interview. But having a B. A. isn't the same as having an education. Potential employers rarely look at the actual college record. What they are judging is  what kind of institution the graduate was able to get into as an 18-year-old. The result of this hiring policy is that “hundreds of thousands of college students go to college not to get an education, but to get a piece of paper.”

Unfortunately, these pieces of paper don't come cheap–$7,000 a year on average for a public college and more than $27,000 for a year at a four-year, private institution. Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Murray believes that the DOE has played a role: 

The Department of Education, with decades of student loans and scholarships for university education, has not just been complicit in the evolution of the B. A. It has been its enabler….

The federal government issued loans totaling $125 billion in 2010. It gave out more than eight million Pell Grants to the tune of more than $32 billion. This artificial subsidy prevented colleges and universities from facing market pressure. The absence of such pressure meant that they could charge higher tuition and didn’t have to turn out educated men and women.

This is a very important speech and I urge you to read it in full, especially now when President Obama is trying to reconfigure the college loan program. It might be time to consider a more radical approach.