Excerpted from my forthcoming guide, “Rethinking Higher Education”

Most young people get a pretty poor education in the public school system, so colleges inherit students who are not ready with a tool kit of sound thinking and basic learning skills.  Professors cannot begin on the task of teaching abstract thinking or specialized skills because the students don’t have basic reading, writing, or thinking sufficient to handle the necessary material.  Understandably, college has moved down the educational chain and become what earlier phases of education are supposed to be; places that provide the most rudimentary skills and knowledge.  College is the new high school.

One result of the downgrade in what colleges teach is that university education has become a baseline indicator of tools needed for career success.  If employers want someone who can read, write, and do basic math, anything less than a college degree is just too risky.  The information cost of finding good employees is high, and any kind of broad, quick signal that says “this person need not be considered” makes the task less costly.  A cyclical relationship has evolved, where the profusion of degrees makes them an easy baseline requirement for businesses, and the demand for degreed employees drives more and more young people to universities, driving the price up faster than any other good or service in the market while the quality is unchanged or even lowered.  Of course the degree arms race would not be possible without the web of subsidized loans and other government interventions that permeate the higher education guild.

Wealth (both real and debt-fueled) has increased over the past several decades, and college as a consumption good has become more affordable.  Going into debt for houses, education, vacations, or any number of things has become more possible and acceptable.  Labor laws and occupational licensing cartels have made working or starting a business a rare option for young people, and the number of professional associations making degrees a legal barrier to entry has grown.  Due to the failure of the K-12 system at imparting basic skills and all manner of other regulatory interventions, college is now seen as a necessity, and governments have subsidized it so much that the price is out of reach and the value declining.  Intervention leading to further intervention only exacerbating the problem.

The higher education establishment is well developed and decades of taxpayer money have created powerful lobbies and vested interests.  They don’t want change.  They want more students paying higher tuition.  The financial incentives offered students, and the easy signal offered employers, are enough to perpetuate the bubble for a while, but clear thinking by prudent purchasers of education might long ago have started producing alternatives.  Another key ingredient has kept this inefficient status quo in place far beyond its usefulness: belief.

The powerful propaganda kids are pummeled with from birth is that college is of inestimable value.  You go to college, you’re set.  If not, good luck flipping burgers.  College is the only way to have a decent job.  The only way to become a normal adult.  The only way to gain broader social experience, or develop a network, or meet a spouse, or become enlightened.  (Nevermind that most of these things are explicitly prevented in the K-12 system.)  Don’t worry about the cost in dollars or opportunities forgone, just do it and you’ll be on your way to the American dream.  Where institutional incentives leave off, cultural narrative picks up the slack, and the ‘everyone must go to college’ myth carries on.

But change is coming, and it is possible to create a better path…

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The preceding was an excerpt from my forthcoming guide, Rethinking Higher Education, which will be released on July 28. Visit the guide page for more information and links to related content. If you haven’t already, join Liberty.me today for access to this guide and more!