Two disturbing pieces coming nearly back to back recently outline the clusterfuck that is higher education in America today.

This, from the New York Times

Young adults have long faced a rough job market, but in the last recession and its aftermath, college graduates did not lose nearly as much ground as their less-educated peers, according to a new study.

But those with a bachelor’s degree started off in the strongest position and weathered the downturn best, with employment slipping from 69 percent to 65 percent. (The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded a similar decline, about four percentage points, among all people over 20, at any education level.)

Similarly, in all three groups of young adults, wages fell for those who had work, but the decline was spread unevenly.

People with four-year college degrees saw a 5 percent drop in wages, compared with a 12 percent decrease for their peers with associate’s degrees, and a 10 percent decline for high school graduates.

Recessions in some respects put secular trends on steroids. Before, it was desirable that you have a college degree. When the bottom falls out of the labor market, it becomes nearly essential because qualified labor compresses, crowds out, and expels the least qualified. Trot out your studies about kids not learning in college. I don’t care. Across the labor market, degree > non-degree. It’s a heuristic we need to work to justify, not expunge.

Then this from the Wall Street Journal

Nearly half of the schools surveyed by Moody’s reported enrollment declines this fall, though overall median enrollment remained relatively flat from the previous year. A stagnant high-school graduate population, particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, is contributing to the declines at some schools.

Moody’s also attributed the enrollment decline at some public universities to a “heightened scrutiny of the value of higher education” after years of tuition increases and stagnating family income. The credit-rating firm said in its report that more students are “increasingly attending more affordable community colleges, studying part time, or electing to enter the workforce without the benefit of a college education.”

Private universities and colleges with lower credit ratings, as well as smaller public universities, reported the most enrollment pressure, according to Moody’s.

“We have a more informed class of college consumers,” said Bonnie Snyder, founder of Kerrigan College Planning in Lancaster, Pa. “Everyone today knows someone who went to college and ended up with a career that didn’t justify the cost. They see college as a more risky investment.”

College on average leads to higher lifetime income and more secure employment. Yet humans’ fragile minds discount the future to the present. Times are uncertain, and college costs a lot, today. Its subjective value is being decimated. And let’s not kid ourselves who these people are: they are the kids who have to take out loans and work jobs just to go to a mid-level state school. In other words they are the vulnerable ones. And they are almost certainly making a decision today that will hurt them the rest of their lives.

Higher education is far more expensive than it should be. I have ideas as to what needs to be done to bring higher education into the 21st century. Yet not one of them involves simply rejecting the value of human capital investment through post-secondary education. Sorry.

Anyone who is standing around with a grin on their face yelling “told you college cost too much!” is truly blind to human welfare, and of course truly blind to empirical truth. But it’s becoming disturbingly en vogue to play the cynic.


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