Peter Thiel has been making a splash lately by calling higher education “the next bubble.” In a fairly recent Wall Street Journal article, he went as far as to say “Liberals [...] blame our education system, but liberals are the last ones to fix it, just wanting to throw money [at education] “University administrators are the equivalent of subprime mortgage brokers,” he says, “selling you a story that you should go into debt massively, that it’s not a consumption decision, it’s an investment decision. Actually, no, it’s a bad consumption decision. Most colleges are four-year parties.”
A recent study from professors at NYU and UVA may have corroborated this theory, “New research finds that 45 percent of undergraduate college students show no significant improvement in the areas of critical thinking and complex reasoning by the end of their sophomore year. … [Students] were tested using the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized essay-based test that measures analytic and problem solving skills, reports the New York Times…. Inside Higher Ed explains some of the study’s results: 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college. 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. Those students who do show improvements tend to show only modest improvements.”
In my neuroscience course, a similar study was cited that suggested the attitudes of college students have changed dramatically too. In the 1970s, students had an overwhelming focus on “finding one’s place” in college. Now, we’re all apparently out to get jobs. The presidents of universities, though, have consistently wanted to promote critical thinking. It seems like everyone is losing out!
And it also seems like this cycle is continuing until further notice. Even the most vigorous autodidact would have trouble signaling their intelligence to a prospective employer over some kid who got a couple of good scores on some tests in a conventional, name-brand college. (Heck, I couldn’t get my first job a salon sweeping up hair since I wasn’t enrolled in beauty school!) Thiel has been trying to save a few nerdy souls from the fate of debt and hangovers, starting an initiative to give thousands of dollars to any budding entrepreneur under the age of twenty who dare drop out of their respective school.
While this might be helping a few elite entrepreneurs, I wonder when we’ll see the people who really don’t need to go to an expensive school (that goes for you, photography majors at NYU!) start to drop out and have their departments disintegrate. Cornell is on the vanguard, disposing of their education department at the end of the year. Expensive resources make a great university, but it can also render it totally ill-fitting if one’s career prospects would lead them to become a teacher at a high school. It just doesn’t make financial sense.
Yet in the past few decades, America has seen many attempts to legislate college “affordability” through various measures like increasing federal funding for student loans, or even preventing “bad choices” in the case of New York. This is a popular political stunt since it holds noble aspirations, though the strategies themselves are rarely effective. For instance, a crux of the Obama administration’s goals, as stated on the website of the Vice President’s Middle Class Taskforce, is “increasing loans and grants, [to ensure that] families will always be able to count on the help they expect.” Yet Econ 101 suggests, and empirical evidence corroborates, an increase in federal loans, Pell grants, and other assistance programs results in higher tuition over time. According to a study by Bridget Long of Harvard University, private four year colleges increased tuition prices by more than two dollars for every dollar increase in Pell Grants, and public colleges increased theirs by .97 for every dollar increase. From 1979 to the present day, college tuition has increased in price by roughly 160%, while the average median family income has increased by 10%. So, maybe our over-valuation of college has hurt us twofold.
It is my contention that the focus is too high on signaling that one can get into a school, rather than critically evaluating the content of the work produced. In the NYU/UVA study, “the results also showed that many students are not engaging in a challenging curriculum. Half of the students did not take a course requiring 20 pages of writing over a typical semester and 32 percent did not take a course that required at least 40 pages of reading per week.” What puzzles me more, though, are the people who know they will incur tremendous debt to go into low-paying industries for this sake. There is no shame in not going to college, especially if it is obvious that one does not want to pursue a conventional career that requires a certain degree. Heck, if it wasn’t so critical to signaling my intelligence when applying for jobs in journalism or finance, I doubt I would be enrolled. Alas, there are few ways to short this bubble and I certainly do not want to be the first one to try.