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Higher education's bubble may be about to burst

Thinking it Through

For years young people have been told that a college education is the best investment they can make in their future. Armed with statistics that show college graduates make more money than those with only a high school diploma, college officials have seen a steady increase in enrollment.

But that trend may soon peak. Between rising tuition, mounting debt and declining job prospects after graduation — if they make it that far — many young people are not only turning to ways of saving money but even avoiding college altogether. Just how bad is it?

According to the National Association of Scholars (NAS), the most expensive private colleges are charging $58,379 per year or $234,946 for a four-year degree. While public colleges charge less, tuition rates of $5000 for each term are common. The vast majority of students cannot afford college without going deeply into debt.

According to the NAS, the average debt for recent graduates is $26,000. That represents a wide range from a few thousand for community college students to tens of thousands for those at elite schools. Unlike other debts, these cannot be mitigated or escaped through bankruptcy. Students’ poor or diminished job prospects make their situation worse.

A New York Times report revealed that one of the few industries booming today is student loan collection agencies. No wonder: college debt now totals $1 trillion. That is larger than credit card debt and on a level with housing debt. And we all know what happened in the latter case.

The NAS reports that many college graduates from the 1990s have jobs far from what their degrees prepared them for, including 115,000 janitors. 83,000 bartenders, 323,000 restaurant waiters, and 80,000 heavy-duty truck drivers. Moreover, 53.6 percent of bachelor degree holders are jobless or underemployed.

The non-college son of a friend works in a Las Vegas restaurant and can afford a new car and a house. But he works with dozens of college graduates who, because of their crushing debt, can afford only a used car and must pay rent.

Not surprisingly, degrees in business are more popular now than liberal arts degrees. But whatever their major, many students never quite figured out how to write a clear sentence (half of California’s four-year public college students enroll in remedial programs).

I did not need to read the NAS report to know that college has alienated many young people from their country and their fellow citizens. Comfortably ensconced, well-paid liberal and radical professors tell them America is committed to oppressing minorities and women, and the NAS adds, “grinding the poor underfoot while showering privileges on the rich.” As a wise man once observed, it is unnatural to despise your own country, especially when its remarkable progress refutes those harsh judgments.

While the Occupy Wall Street movement railed against the one percent that allegedly rules America, some colleges and universities have enormous endowments. Harvard’s is $31.7 billion, Yale’s is $19.4 billion, and Princeton and the University of Texas each have $17.1 billion.

This is no surprise when you consider that federal and state government grants and loans pay the tuition of millions of students each year to privileged institutions which are under no pressure, as private businesses are, to “watch their bottom line.” Each year the money keeps flowing in and the salaries keep going up. Half a million dollars a year for college presidents is fast becoming the norm, not including the housing and travel perks.

Besides those graduates who either can’t find jobs or must accept positions unrelated to their degrees, fully one-third of students never finish. For years, college administrators blamed their K-12 education or even their college teachers for “failing” those students!
That problem was “solved” by watering down the curriculum. In 1996, NAS published a report, “The Dissolution of General Education: 1964-1993,” examining 50 top universities, and “found an across-the-board removal in core requirements in essential subjects such as math and composition.”

Among the findings:
• the history course requirement dropped from 38 percent of the schools in 1964 to 12 per cent.
• The literature requirement dropped from 38 to 14 percent.
• the natural science requirement dropped from 90 to 34 percent.
• only six percent required mathematics.
• only two percent offered a course in rhetoric, none of which included U.S. News’ top 50 schools.
• only 64 percent of those top schools offered foreign language courses, down from 96 percent in 1964.
Can you say the words, “ripped off”?

Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause”  (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at

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