The Cost of Higher Education

In this blog series, I have been examining the effects of sin on the quality of American college education. In particular, we have addressed the growing lack of mental discipline from students, the promotion of the autonomous self, the promotion of a morally neutral education, the lack of balance in undergraduate natural science education, and the lack of genuine rigor in the liberal arts within the American college education system. The last issue that I want to address is the most obvious issue in college education and, in many ways, is the culmination of many of the topics discussed previously: the unnecessarily high cost of education.

The Higher Education Bubble

A college degree once looked to be the path to prosperity. Like the housing bubble of the 2000s, the higher education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper the same seductive promise into the ears of Americans: Do this and you will be safe. It is thought that a student will gain knowledge and seasoning in college that will make him or her more productive and a candidate for a high-paying career. The investment of time and money in knowledge pays through higher productivity and is translated into higher income. Thus, higher education is meant to be the higher-order means to a successful career. reality is that our core national belief on the value of college education has many of the same irrational thought processes as home ownership. In any economic sector, a true bubble is created when something is highly overvalued and intensely believed. In the 2000s, the prevailing belief among Americans was that housing prices would always go up and no matter what happens in the world, houses were the best investments you could make. The housing bubble has shattered that myth. However, there is still a rather persistent belief among Americans: no matter what happens in the world, education is the best investment you can make. In other words, you will always make more money if you are college educated. Sounds familiar?

Similar to the housing bubble, we can say that there is significant malinvestment in higher education, which has led to the overinflated cost of college education today. According to Bloomberg News, college tuition and fees have increase 1,120% since records began in 1978 and state school tuition is rising even faster – 50% faster at state schools versus private in roughly the last decade. Similar to the housing bubble, this higher education bubble is fueled by easy debt, totaling $1.2 trillion outstanding. In other words, student loan debt is easy to get, but hard to get rid of. The low interest rates for loans (based in part to perceived demand for college degrees) have continued to create a favorable environment for colleges to expand, increasing the debt of major universities. Since the cost of these expansion projects are partially passed on to the students, the higher education bubble continues to inflate.

As mentioned previously, students are willing to tolerate this increase in cost for two basic reasons: (1) high paying jobs will require a college degree and (2) high paying jobs will be plentiful when the student graduates. Both of these assumptions are being challenged today based on the high unemployment rates of recent graduates. The painful reality is that there are many college graduates today that are baby-sitters, sales clerks, telemarketers, and bartenders. In other words, college education for many is a significant malinvestment. The higher education bubble also has had an unintended social cost. Because of the economic constraint placed upon them, these debtors are postponing marriage and childbearing and, in many cases, severely limiting the number of children that they will have.

An even more critical question is whether students will graduate in the first place since only about 40% of full-time students earn a degree within four years. To quote economist Doug French, unfinished college education is as useful as an unfinished house.

Vocation and Higher Education

From what we have discussed above, the essential cause of the higher education bubble is the public’s perceived belief in and value of traditional college education. As discussed in previous blogs, a culture’s perception of value stems directly from their worldview. We have been told in numerous places that college education should be a right that should be guaranteed to every America. This raises an obvious question: should all Americans even go to college? Or more directly, should all current college students be in college?

The reality is that the expansion of college education has opened the door to students who are unqualified based on their lack of interest or lack of an appropriate skill set for college. In doing student advising as a professor, one of the common statements that I hear from students is: “I don’t want to do that type of work.” This statement is usually said with a sense that certain types of work (usually blue-collar jobs) are beneath them. Today, there are few students entering college who desire to be elevator repairers, electrical power line installers, transportation inspectors, boilermakers, and electricians. In other words, we have a large amount of students who are not necessarily interested or gifted enough to do intellectually demanding work, but who refuse to do “menial work”.

It is at this point that a good understanding regarding the Protestant doctrine of vocation is quite helpful. Much discussion in our culture has been given to the dignity of living the life of the mind and pursuing white collar jobs as the careers of the future. In the same breadth, there has been mere lip service given to blue-collar work. This has given the impression that a person only works blue-collar jobs because they are not fortunate enough to obtain better employment. As Christians, we recognize that there is inherent dignity in ALL forms of lawful work that’s beneficial to society. In other words, there is inherent dignity with jobs that require significant manual labor. These blue-collar jobs are legitimate and honorable callings for those who are qualified and trained. This implies that there should be qualitative differences between the various types of higher education that we offer. In other words, there should be distinct differences in mission and in purpose between colleges/universities, technical schools, community colleges, and trade schools.

In developing the multiversity structure for higher education, many current universities are guilty of “mission creep” by attempting to do the job that community colleges, trade schools, and even formal apprenticeships use to do. In my view, this has caused a large disjunction between the real purpose of colleges/universities and the sort of students that they attract. This “mission creep”, coupled with the administrative apparatus needed to handle university expansion, also helps to explain the rising cost of higher education. Moreover, there is a large disjunction between the skills developed in university education and the skills demanded by employers. The truth is that everyone does not need to go to college to be well-educated or to find a good job. The availability of knowledge from the internet (such as MIT OpenCourseWare) suits many students quite well so that they can determine what they are called to do. Furthermore, more American companies are moving towards the apprenticeship model in order to attract qualified potential employees.

The Morality of Debt

There is also a significant moral element to this discussion: is it ethical for 18-19 year old adults to incur $100K of debt? The Scriptures teach us that it’s usually dangerous and unwise for a person to incur large debt (cf. Proverbs 6:1-5; 17:18; 20:16; Romans 13:8) because debt essentially makes us a slave to the one who provides the loan. Moreover, the contractual nature of loans makes them similar to taking oaths. Just as we are commanded not to take oath rashly, we should not enter into financial debt rashly as well.

The unfortunate reality is that many students simply take out loans indiscriminately without counting the necessary costs, which is antithetical to a Christian worldview. This attitude towards debt helps to produce the economic miscalculation that fuels higher education costs. Moreover, a culture in which debt is taken lightly is also a culture in which defaults are inevitable and plentiful. Some college graduates even take the position that defaulting on debt is morally good.

From a Christian worldview, defaulting on student loans is akin to stealing. The 8th commandment requires us to act truthfully, faithfully, and justly in our contractual and business relationships with our fellow man so that we give to all what they deserve (cf. Romans 13:7). As testified by older college graduates, there use to be a time in which a student could pay their tuition in cash by working a summer job or by working while in school. This meant that any loan that was taken out for education was paid for as soon as possible. Thus, Christians today should carefully consider whether having the “college experience” and the illusory prospect of high-paying future employment is worth potentially violating the 8th commandment in the future. This is not only a message to individual students and their parents, but it’s a message to our general culture: if we have an educational system that encourages stealing, then it’s a system that needs to be called into question.

4 thoughts on “The Cost of Higher Education

    • Thanks for the encouragement, brother. It’s a topic that I think about a lot more these days because I do a lot of student advising. Many of the students that I get have no business majoring in physics nor being in a traditional college/university. Many of these students will receive mediocre grades at best and will graduate in 5-6 years, which means that they will leave college with about $150K in debt with no particular job prospects. In good conscience, I cannot tell students that they should “stick it out”, in hopes that they will get dramatically better or get into a decent graduate program.

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