August 01, 2008

One provision of Congress’s newest higher education bill requires that colleges and universities report their reasons for tuition hikes to the Department of Education.  It will be interesting to see how many ways they can come up with to say, “Because we can.”

The motivation behind the bill, which passed both houses of Congress today, is to expand access to higher education by making it more affordable.  When it comes to tuition prices, the effect is likely to be exactly the opposite.  Neal McCluskey’s Washington Times editorial puts it in a single elegant sentence: “The more money students get from others, the more they’re willing to pay and the more universities are happy to charge.”  Tuition at four-year universities has gone up by almost half since 1999, but what does that matter when nobody pays sticker price?

Even with the changing labor market and the growing importance of human capital, there are still a number of careers for which a degree gives no real leg up and many more careers where it does but shouldn’t.  The fact that businesses can afford to hire only applicants with bachelor’s degrees—or, to put it more bluntly, those candidates who have had enough spare time and money to get one—doesn’t mean that a college degree bears any relationship to the skills a position requires.

There are arguments against degree inflation that focus on the way that it lowers college’s standards and dumbs down the meaning of a liberal arts education, but the real problem is more prosaic: the more people have college degrees, the more difficult it is to get along without one.  Getting a college degree used to be only one of many ways a young person might advance within his field; apprenticeships, vocational training in high school, and working up from an entry-evel position were others, all with lower price tags.  Now, there are many career paths for which a college degree is, inexplicably, a prerequisite.

Ted Kennedy puts the number of students for whom the cost of four-year college is a deal-breaker at 780,000 per year.  The more interesting statistic would be the percentage of these 780,000 for whom putting four years into a degree would or should be worth it, given the career paths they want to pursue.

On a cheerier note, the final version of the bill mandates that, in order to receive funding, teacher training programs must include specialized instruction in gifted and talented education.  This provision is thanks to the efforts of Chuck Grassley and is a refreshing change from education policy’s usual preoccupation with remedial programs and achieving mere adequacy.  Read more about the bill’s specific provisions here.


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