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LEEF: Burst the higher-education bubble

Subjecting academia to market forces would raise diploma value

- - Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Almost everyone knows the country went through the wringer after the housing bubble burst. Now a new bubble looms before us - the higher-education bubble.

Just as easy money, lowered lending standards and political hype came together to vastly overinflate the housing sector, a combination of easy money (federal grants and loans available for nearly every student), lowered academic standards (colleges that readily accept students with pathetically weak basic skills) and political hype (the notion that getting a degree will guarantee a huge boost in earnings) have produced a vastly overinflated higher-education system.

The higher-education bubble has been inflating for decades, and it's ready to burst, or at least deflate. That's because many Americans are realizing that the huge cost of college is often a waste. Whereas college degrees used to be regarded as sure-fire investments, the labor market has become glutted with people who have been to college but can't find "good" jobs.

Did you know that 22 percent of customer-sales representatives and 16 percent of bartenders have bachelor's degrees?

Furthermore, at many schools, academic standards have fallen to the point where students can coast through without learning anything worthwhile. As University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds recently wrote, "The higher education bubble isn't bursting because of a shortage of money. It is bursting because of a shortage of value."

As a result, many students and parents are looking for less expensive, more effective alternatives to the traditional degree. They're finding plenty of new options with online courses and independent certification of competencies, such as ACT's National Career Readiness Certificates.

This educational revolution will transform higher education for the better as people shop for good value for their education dollars rather than robotically enrolling in a college, taking its courses and paying its bills.

During the bubble, colleges could get away with offering lots of courses that met a standard that former Indiana University English professor Murray Sperber characterizes as "the faculty/student nonaggression pact." That is, the professor didn't demand much of the students and gave high grades; in return, the students didn't expect much from the professor, who wanted time for academic research projects.

The students were happy: Who complains about courses with high grades but little work? The professors were happy, and the administrators were happy because students getting good grades typically don't gripe or, more important, drop out.

But courses in which students just go through the motions without learning anything are a waste of time and money.

The good news is that in the new higher-education world, courses like that will be jettisoned. Like dieters giving up doughnuts in favor of more nutritious, low-calorie foods, college consumers will look for affordable courses that lead to demonstrable educational gains.

The housecleaning in higher education also will sweep out lots of courses that exist only because professors like to teach them. Such courses typically focus on narrow, trendy or highly political subjects that interest the professor. For example, students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, can take "The Psychology of Clothes: Motivations for Dressing Up and Dressing Down." In the new era of value consciousness, such boutique courses will be culled out.

Not only will boutique courses go, but professors will be required to do more of something many dislike and avoid as much as possible: Work with students.

For decades, the trend has been toward less teaching and more research. Much of that research is of minimal intellectual value, and much of the teaching is perfunctory. We will see the pendulum swing back, with professors being rewarded more on how well they teach than how much they publish.

Another benefit of higher ed's bursting bubble will be that many young people, freed from the unnecessary pressure to get a four-year degree, will be able to begin productive careers sooner, with little or no college debt hanging over their heads.

Americans are used to hearing that our higher-education system is "the envy of the world." That's nonsense. We have some superb programs, but they're surrounded by an ocean of expensive mediocrity.

Fortunately, expensive mediocrity never lasts long when people are able to shop around for better value. That's happening in higher education, much for the better.

George Leef is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (popecenter.org) in Raleigh, N.C.