Saturday, November 28, 2009

So true:University bubble bursting?

Jay Ambrose

University students are going crazy in California - and yes, I know, that's hardly news, seeing as how the affliction traces back to the 1960s at the very least. But recent angry protests - including the takeover of a building at Berkeley - just may signal something hugely significant, much like the burst of the housing bubble. Let's call it the burst of the university bubble, and let's look at why it might happen - not just a 32-percent increase in California fees, but the extraordinary assault on family finances mounted over the years nationally by this nation's supremely privileged institutions of higher education.

Here are the documented statistics as I found them on the Internet - a 10-fold increase in tuition and fee costs at universities over a 20-year period ending in 2008, compared to a three-fold increase in the cost of living, or - if you want to look at a topic now absorbing Washington - a six-fold increase in medical costs.

Average costs of books, supplies, transportation, personal needs, room, board, tuition, fees and the rest of it can come to something like $34,000 a year at private schools, something a little less than twice what non-grant, in-state students pay at public universities. Over four years, there's a big hit whether the schools are private or public and often if there are grants.

Watch out, middle class, because here is a common cost more devastating than just about anything but home mortgages in this period of pocketbook peril. You may think the federal government provides rescue with its loan programs and what not, but all of that feeds inflation much as subprime loans fed housing inflation, helps create an average debt of $20,000 after graduation, and not infrequently leaves families in financial turmoil, even as professorial life remains pleasant.

I don't resent it that our mostly admirable professors make an average of $100,000 a year, get summers off, teach half as many hours as they did a couple of decades back, and have tenure that safeguards their jobs from incompetence. But I can see how all of that contributes to tuition bumps, and I've learned it's simply false that students who tuned into their tutelage will make a million more in a lifetime than high-school graduates.

As some stringent analyses of the claim have now shown, you've got to calculate how high-school graduates were earning money while college students were paying money, and when you've done this and more, you find that a bachelor's degree adds up to something like an extra $280,000 over a lifetime unless the high-school graduate becomes a highly skilled worker, such as an electrician. Not all young people have the aptitude needed to master college work, and there are many other ways to learn the occupational abilities that colleges teach, such as online courses.

Here we come to the big question, namely whether ever-larger numbers of young people will turn to some of these more easily available, cheaper means of obtaining occupational skills. My guess is that they will, even if college gives you the soul-enlarging, consciousness-expanding blessing of liberal arts in an intellectually enriching environment.

Toss away the old ways, and you're tossing away something big, but colleges and universities are now mismanaging themselves out of reach of people of ordinary means - despite grants that aren't always high enough and don't reach many students, and despite the relatively inexpensive two-year schools that don't fit everyone's goals.

Colleges and universities have had it their way for centuries, but they have lately failed in making their teaching affordable at the same time high-tech possibilities are arising. If they stick with their towering administrative costs, unnecessarily fancy facilities and other managerial excesses, technology will pass them by as surely as telegraphs, telephones and e-mails bypassed couriers on horseback.

Jay Ambrose is the former Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard.

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