In 2001, dictator Robert Mugabe had just run Zimbabwe’s economy into the ground and was desperate for a way to revive it. Observing that those with money tend to be more prosperous than those without, Mugabe decided to simply print enormous sums of cash. What Mugabe failed to realize, of course, is that introducing new currency devalues existing notes. Zimbabwe soon became a nation of trillionaires who couldn’t afford to buy bread.
America’s looming higher education bubble is roughly akin to hyperinflation in Zimbabwe. Observing that those with college degrees tend to be more prosperous than those without, our government decided to institute enormous student aid programs and otherwise encourage college attendance for all. The results have been eerily similar.
Higher education for everyone sounds about as appealing as printing money. Yet, not unlike an envelope of money, a college degree would lose its symbolic value if everyone received one.
Imagine that you are an employer examining a stack of job applications. The more applications include degrees, the less impressive a degree seems. A college degree is a distinguishing characteristic precisely because a limited number of people have them. In the job market, students that graduate from college ultimately do so at the expense of their classmates.
When the government increases student aid, more students attend college. Increased attendance means more student loans are taken out – but, as the value of the degree declines, less and less students are able to pay them off.
A suffering economy puts more pressure on universities to increase tuition, which they are able to do because of increased student aid. When tuition rises, students take out more loans and the government perpetuates the cycle by increasing student aid again.
To say that our generation is caught in a downward spiral would be an understatement. In its misguided desire to make us all equal, our society has grossly overemphasized higher education and unleashed a hurricane of insanity that seems to be endlessly compounding our generation’s financial burden.
Three hundred thousand Americans with college degrees now work as waiters and waitresses, according to an Oct. 20, 2010 column by Richard Vedder in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The fields of low-skill labor and janitorial work each employ more than 100,000 college graduates. Five thousand janitors have a Ph.D. Overall, 17 million college graduates have jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says do not require a college education.
The book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reports that 45 percent of college students make no gains in writing ability or reasoning skills after two years in college. More than one-third of college seniors are no better at writing or reasoning than they were as freshmen.
Ultimately, who provides financial aid for these roughly 500,000 students each year? Who foots the bill when graduates in low-skill jobs default or their loans are forgiven? How much debt is piled upon students who would have been better off not attending college? More disturbingly, how many graduates in low-skill jobs might be working in their chosen fields if their degrees held more symbolic value?
Higher education is not for everyone. Pretending otherwise punishes those who might benefit from it and needlessly plunges those who can’t into debt – all at the expense of taxpayers. The ideal solution would be to culturally reject the universality of higher education. The longer we fail to address this problem, however, the more unmanageable it will become. The most efficient answer is to phase out federal student aid.
Ian Huyett is a junior in political science and anthropology. Please send all comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.