Everyone loves the party game “Two Truths and a Lie,” where among three statements, you have to guess which one is false.
Can you guess which of these three statements about higher education is not true?
A. Taxpayer money is propping up universities’ ability to charge ever-higher tuition rates and expand silly degree programs.
B. A four-year degree is the only viable pathway to getting a well-paying job.
C. Many students graduating with bachelor’s degrees are ignorant of basic facts about American government.
Let’s see how you did!
A. TRUE! Universities receive billions in direct grants from the federal government, which also underwrites most of the $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt. That’s right: as an American taxpayer, you hold the ultimate dance card if that debt is not fully repaid, while the universities that sold students degrees that didn’t make financial sense have already cashed in on government largesse.
To make matters worse, those subsidies make it possible for colleges to raise tuition rates well above inflation, counting on the government to step up investment. Students get crippling levels of debt and taxpayers get the bill, but universities get paid upfront, with no strings attached.
B. FALSE! While it’s true that having a four-year degree, on average, doubles lifetime earnings, it’s not clear how much of that success is directly attributable to the degree, and how much is due to the average college student having a leg up over others in life in other ways, such as family wealth or connections.
Median earnings for many fields of study are lower than they were a decade ago, and as tuition costs increase, the cost-benefit calculus on a college degree is changing, and so are the career options for those without a bachelor’s. There are 30 million jobs in America that don’t require a four-year degree, paying on average $55,000 a year.
Forcing taxpayers to heavily subsidize one expensive pathway to success when so many others are available is a mistake.
C. TRUE! Unfortunately, getting an expensive degree doesn’t mean students are well-educated. A large majority of America’s institutions of higher learning do not require even history majors to take a single course on American history, and only 18 percent of four-year colleges have United States history or government as a foundational course.
This has led to sometimes-astounding levels of ignorance among college graduates. For example, only half of college graduates can identify the purpose of the Federalist Papers, fewer than 1 in 5 know that the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in Southern-held territories during the Civil War, and a third do not know that FDR was responsible for the New Deal.
Ten percent of college graduates believe that Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court.
For more information on the college debt crisis, read IWF’s policy focus here.