The Pyrrhic Victory of American Higher Education: Bubbles, Lemons, and Revolution

By Edel, Jonathan Noble | Notre Dame Law Review, February 2013 | Go to article overview

The Pyrrhic Victory of American Higher Education: Bubbles, Lemons, and Revolution


Edel, Jonathan Noble, Notre Dame Law Review


INTRODUCTION

While mingling with an old high-school friend--let's call him Troy--at a wedding recently, the conversation took an unexpected turn. I asked him how his work at the local grain elevator had been going; he retorted that it was great, aside from the $600 monthly remuneration he was paying in college loans. After inquiring about how much longer he would be making these loan repayments, he despondently answered, "the rest of my life." Troy spent more than three years at a large state university in Ohio, but, feeling as if he never truly belonged, dropped out with nothing to show for it except tens of thousands of dollars of debt and nearly four years of his life seemingly wasted.

The prospect of insurmountable education debt, unfortunately, is one that plagues thousands of individuals across the country--degree in hand or not. (1) Many of these dejected souls echo similar tales of peer, parental, and societal pressures, encouraging them to pursue the illusion of the "American Dream," where everyone goes to college and no one has to do "manual labor." Unfortunately, with the economy still reeling from the credit crisis and college enrollment at an all-time high, a large portion of those entering--or at least attempting to enter--the workforce will face the same fate as Troy.

While this predicament may be easy to dismiss as merely a negative effect of the current economic crisis that will eventually equilibrate, it is more likely that the crisis has exposed a larger problem with our educational system--the proliferation and devaluation of higher education, colloquially known as the "massification of higher education." (2) While a more educated populace is a noble goal, overeducating comes at an expense, and politicians and policymakers must weigh the benefits against the costs in ascertaining the ideal amount of education. (3)

This Note will attempt to expose a few of the myriad problems created by the over-education phenomenon and offer some suggestions on how to deal with them without major social conflict. (4) First, Part I will begin with a brief introduction and rundown of the statistical trends in educational attainment in the United States. Part II will then detail the history of higher education policies--political, societal, and economic--which affect Americans' educational choices. Next, Part III will explain the serious side effects these policies have created--including, increasing education costs, lower wages for workers, and higher unemployment. Part IV will then explore a potential solution, as well as suggestions proffered by others, to diffuse this delicate situation with some not-so-delicate ideas, including changing the high school curriculum and restricting the federal student loan program. Finally, the Note closes with some concluding remarks.

I. TRENDS IN HIGHER EDUCATION

It is instructive to begin with a short summary of educational achievement trends in the United States. Americans today are more educated than they ever have been in the past. (5) A study by the United States Census Bureau in 2010 revealed that of adults between the ages of twenty-five to thirty-four, 31.1% had attained a bachelor's degree. (6) In the early 1950s, this number was in single digits. (7) The study also found that for adults twenty-five years and older, the percentage with high school degrees and the percentage with bachelor's degrees were both at all-time highs. (8) Similar trends are present across all genders, (9) races, (10) and socio-economic backgrounds. (11)

Over the past few decades, there has also been a major increase in the cost of higher education. From 2002 to 2007 alone, the average cost of attending a public four-year university shot up thirty-five percent, outpacing inflation over the same period by a significant margin. (12) In fact, between the 1976-77 and 1986-87 academic years, the "average annual inflation-adjusted increase in public four-year college .

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