Peter Wood, the current president of the National Association of Scholars, and prior to that Cold Spring Shops's Favorite Academic Administrator, contemplates the college bubble, with an intriguing prophecy.
The academics reading this have few tears to shed for people earning upwards of a quarter of million dollars a year. But it is not sympathy that I would summon; it’s self-interest. In the ecology of higher education, these families are the sequoias. They provide the canopy and the shade in which much of higher education flourishes. That is, they pay those high tuitions for their children to attend the supposedly elite institutions, and in so doing they validate the principle for everyone else that those extraordinary high prices are legitimate. The family earning $100,000 a year and willing to scrape and borrow to pay tuition does so in confidence that it is buying something that is worth a lot. And much of that confidence arises from seeing that the (relatively) wealthy are willing to pay for it too.
The dean at Anonymous Community notices an influx of Summer People who are completing college more quickly with good cheap credits.  Scroll through his posts and you get the sense that some of the positional arms racers are considering the community college for academic year credits, and a transfer as well.  Peter Wood observes the same forces at work, and fears for the future.
The affluent finding themselves less so will reassess whether the prestige of well-regarded college and university degrees is worth the price. The somewhat less affluent will notice the defection and wonder whether they too have viable alternatives. The students primarily interested in workplace credentials will find that online education is good enough. And the result will be a humiliating decline in what once seemed an impervious institution.
In the course of his argument, Mr Wood suggests that College for All is a bad idea. Not surprisingly, beneficiaries of the current order disagree.  The problem, dear reader, begins in kindergarten.
The students least well served by our educational system are those who come from the least affluent backgrounds, and those are also the students for whom higher education provides the greatest advantage. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 62 percent of children from the bottom income quintile who attain a college degree escape poverty, compared with less than one-third of those without a college degree.
Sure. Finish high school, stay attached to the work force, if you start a family, get married and stay married, you're unlikely to stay poor. Children should start learning those skills in kindergarten. College is simply a further manifestation of the life-management skill implied by completing high school.
We need more Americans, not fewer, to have easier and more affordable access to higher education. For our failures in this area higher education must bear some of the blame, as must public officials who have systematically disinvested in higher education over an extended period of time and those who are spreading the gospel of education for fewer.
Wrong, and wrong. Easier access means more disengaged and unprepared students in college, whose existence makes work for administrators who proliferate to harass the faculty and eat out their substance. It has nothing to do with disinvestment.

Mr Wood offers a response, including a point relevant to this post.
We pursue education in many ways: by reading, conversing, solving problems, arguing out propositions, researching, writing essays, and—sometimes—having the opportunity for disciplined study in a community of scholars. But the last is neither necessary nor sufficient. And it is an opportunity that is plainly of little value to the third or so of college students who graduate (according to Arum and Roksa’s study based on the Collegiate Learning Assessment) with the same level of intellectual skill they had as entering freshmen.
The best that might be said of those students is that the presence of unprepared, remedial, and disengaged students don't degrade the skills of the seniors unchanged from freshmen. (I have Academically Adrift on the stack of books to review, although that awaits a visit to the working papers and articles on which Adrift might be based.)

In a related post, Richard Vedder asks Chronicle of Higher Education readers to consider the opportunity costs.
Thus admitting students with little realistic prospect for success is pretty costly to taxpayers, as AT THE MARGIN the proportion of the less-good students admitted who graduate is doubtlessly quite small.

The moral of the story is that there are no free lunches. Lofty aspirations, like “everyone should have a chance at college,” come at a cost, not only to taxpayers and to society, but also to individuals who sometimes directly suffer significantly from the unintended consequences of some well-intended policy discussions.

Charles Murray is dubious about “everyone going to college” on intellectual capacity grounds. Jackson Toby is dubious about open admissions in terms of its impact on academic quality and declining high-school standards. I have been dubious on the grounds of labor market imbalances and high costs. Harry Stille’s data provide further support for those whose raise a caution light if not a stop sign with regards to the “College for Everyone” movement.
Regular Cold Spring Shops readers don't have to have "at the margin" shouted at them. He's shouting at Chronicle readers without a proper economics background. It might have been more felicitous for him to explain that taxpayer aid to weak students means seven years of subsidy money down the drain.

That is, if the student even finishes, four or six or seven or ten years later.
If we hold on to the first value that everybody gets a chance both to go to college and to finish, even if in unremarkable fashion (I think you probably need a 2.0 overall and a 3.0 in your major at most schools), then we ARE going to graduate people who will not be able to compete with their more talented or more committed colleagues; they will not be significantly successful in their fields, and it will be hard to pay off those student loans working service industry jobs.

And now we have a second value (accompanied by a nation-wide hue and cry in the last year or so) that education should be affordable, and that the job you can get with the degree should allow you to pay off your student loans without undue distress. But I think these two values are banging into each other. I am not sure which of them we should relax.

Should the university have passed the marginal student through? Accumulating more debt along the way? This is not a hypothetical -- we have encountered this at Southwestern College, and it is an enormously difficult and painful question, and pulls you in the counter-directions, depending on which value gets ahold of your heart and mind's steering wheel at any given moment.

Perhaps at some point the academic bar in the U.S. should be raised so that the large student debt problem is diminished. If we continue to allow marginal students to barely pass through, do we really expect they will find satisfying work in their field, great jobs that pay well? Is that who you are looking to hire? I'm not. Is this not an ethical and moral issue in relation to which American higher education's leadership should challenge itself?
Again, the idea of tradeoffs is instinctive to economists. Production possibility frontiers and indifference curves are all about not being able to have your cake and eat it too. As the concluding paragraph of the excerpt notes, there are market tests. The weak universities will likely have job placement records that are spotty at best, or generally ultra-cyclical.

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