Wednesday, September 8, 2010

If the college bubble is going to burst, who will do the pinprick?

Now that speculation about the higher education bubble is percolating throughout the blogosphere, it's time to ask questions that may have broad relevance.

What, exactly, is the college bubble?

It's the inflation in student tuition and fee payments resulting from the penchant of politicians to approve any new scheme that allows them to pose as champions of education at election time. New student aid programs. Relaxation of repayment schedules for student loans. Pell grants.

Politicians will vote for anything that promises more help for more students.

Once the generous new laws have been enacted, colleges and universities raise their tuition and fee schedules, raking off much of the new booty for salary and benefit increases for faculty and administrators.

Any new money that's left is used to hire more professors of postmodern studies, who will identify new classes of societal victims whose damaged psyches must be repaired by more years of higher education.

This script has been followed for decades, resulting in more and more students pursuing more and more screwball majors on more and more dumbed-down campuses.

What, exactly, is going to blow up this tried and true formula?

In the subprime housing bubble, it was actual defaults on real mortgages that triggered collapse.

In Holland, in the 1630s, tulipmania flourished because it took seven years to grow a blossom from seed. At the height of the bubble, farms changed hands for a single tulip bulb.

Eventually, the greater fool principle asserted itself. One day, the greater fool failed to show up at the tulip market, and the last fools were stuck with the hugely overpriced bulbs.

In higher education, it's hard to find a plausible trigger for collapse, but there are some candidates.

Corporations and institutions could adjust their specifications and look for new hires in other locales. They also could drop their demand for degrees and settle for proof of competence by examination.

My bet is that the humble community colleges, which supply solid education at modest cost without the marxist indoctrination, will score a slow, grinding knockout.

The elite colleges will endure a sputtering shrinkage that will produce a new crop of victims for liberal educators and the Democrat Party to celebrate: twenty-somethings who were deprived of elite education by an evil ruling class that cares only about its own excessive profits.

This is an unacceptable outcome because it leaves little to write about.

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