Bubble Fantasies: Dancing on the Empty Grave of Academia

The National Review’s Phi Beta Cons blog has yet another entry in its seeming endless series of posts predicting the imminent doom of academia. Like the world’s worst psychics, the conservative movement keeps declaring its certainty that higher education is a “bubble” and on the verge of annihilation. In reality, there is no bubble in higher education. We are not on the verge of seeing the most stable industry in our society suddenly pop and disappear. But this mass delusion on the right is revealing.

The latest effort is from Jennifer Kabbany: “Loosely defined, the bubble refers to a combination of several factors all coalescing at once, including the rising cost of tuition, the growing irrelevance of a liberal arts degree, ballooning student loan debt, and severe unemployment for college grads.”

The rising cost of tuition and student loan debt reflect the problem of paying for college, not the notion that college is worthless (in fact, they contradict that). Liberal arts degrees aren’t irrelevant, but students going far into debt tend to choose more vocational majors.

And “severe unemployment for college grads” has to be the most laughable line of all. The unemployment rate for college grads was 2.5% in June 2015 (nearly a 25% decline from a year earlier, the best of any group), compared to 8.2% for those with less than a high school diploma.

It’s remarkable that conservatives have developed such a knee-jerk hatred of higher education, imagining that it is a space beyond their control, that they actually have fantasies that it will self-destruct. These bubble fantasies are completely irrational, and contrary to all the facts, but the desire to see this “liberal” institution receive its comeuppance is so powerful that they refuse to believe reality. They are dancing on the grave of academia, never realizing that it’s an empty grave they’ve dug themselves in hopes of seeing it die.

This dance has serious consequences: while the attacks on academia haven’t caused any students to be dumb enough to abandon college (except for a handful handed a hefty bribe by Peter Thiel), they have undermined political support for higher education, leading to funding cuts by Scott Walker and friends. This exacerbates the problems of high tuition and student debt, which fuels another cycle of conservative delusions about the higher education bubble.

That’s one reason why we need to refute this nonsense about a bubble: not because it is even remotely close to becoming true, but because of the danger that the conservative movement is embracing a new anti-intellectual wave that has grave consequences for academia.

4 thoughts on “Bubble Fantasies: Dancing on the Empty Grave of Academia

  1. “And ‘severe unemployment for college grads’ has to be the most laughable line of all. The unemployment rate for college grads was 2.5% in June 2015 (nearly a 25% decline from a year earlier, the best of any group), compared to 8.2% for those with less than a high school diploma.”

    That is a offensively misleading statistic. It water downs the problem by including 64 year olds who have a college degree and who have had a job for the past 30 years. In contrast, look for statistics on recent college grads. The unemployment rate is 7.2% for recent grads vs 5.5% in 2007 (a third higher). And unemployment only counts those who haven’t given up. It also counts those who are underemployed:

    More Than Half 2014 College Grads Are In Jobs That Don’t Require Degree

    That should take the smile of any academics’ face. Will 2015 be better? It can hardly be worse. Looking into the celebrated December jobs reports shows there are a lot of bar tender jobs being created by this “booming” economy.

    Half of college graduates expect to be supported by their families

    • What I gave is not a misleading statistic. There is no evidence of a structural change in the employment advantage of those with a college degree, so the benefits of college to older workers are likely to exist in the future as well. The unemployment rate for recent college grads is less than half that of all young workers (just as it was in 2007). I’m perfectly happy that more than half of today’s college grads are in jobs that don’t require a degree. Most jobs shouldn’t require a college degree. And I think lots of people should go to college even if it’s not a necessity for their first job.

      • Should read “No one is arguing that college grads don’t do better in the job market.”

        I would also add that the “good news” is that I agree with you. It is not a matter of a bubble bursting like the subprime mortgage market. Academia is more like the demise of the film camera business.

        I would also add that the situation with state legislatures is going to get much worse. Obamacare subsidies are being phased out and Obamacare enrollments were much higher than predicted. Medicaid costs rose 4.5% last year. (The NYT and Kaiser Family Foundation point out that non-expansion states, the costs rose more. But that effect will be ending as states begin to pick up the tab after 2016 and the expansion states have a far larger Medicaid bill.)

  2. The issue is here is that parents and young adults are having to make difficult monetary decisions regarding college. (I know that talk of money is distasteful to those sequestered in academia.) No one is arguing that college grads do better in the job market. What has changed is that both the cost of college has gone up dramatically and that the benefit has declined significantly. Your reference shows that unemployment for recent college grads during the obama recovery period has been about twice the historical average (and shows a bump back up).

    “And I think lots of people should go to college even if it’s not a necessity for their first job.”

    Well, that’s great that you think that. But again, the issue is the recent grad who owes $28,400 (the average) who can only find a job selling computers or waitressing. And they are doing the math and this is happening: College enrollment rates are dropping, especially among low-income students (WaPo, November 24, 2015).

    And no, I am not saying that college enrollment is going to zero. It is basic Econ 101. Cost up, benefit down. Less widgets sold. And the business of education can ill afford to lose customers when costs are skyrocketing and state legislatures are not disposed to keep feeding the beast. And finally MOOCs are coming on strong. If one could buy stock in Illinois State, I would be selling short.

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