27 January 2011

Who benefits from a bursting bubble in education?

Peter Thiel thinks there’s an education bubble about to burst:

Probably the only candidate left for a bubble — at least in the developed world (maybe emerging markets are a bubble) — is education. It’s basically extremely overpriced. People are not getting their money’s worth, objectively, when you do the math. And at the same time it is something that is incredibly intensively believed; there’s this sort of psycho-social component to people taking on these enormous debts when they go to college simply because that’s what everybody’s doing.

He is in no way the first to make this claim. As someone in higher education myself, I absolutely agree that university is not and should not be for everyone. I’ve seen people who didn’t benefit economically from going to university.

But I had this paranoid thought.

Here is a billionaire (if his Wikipedia entry can be believed). Regardless, he’s not just “well off”; he’s rich.

Widely available, affordable higher education has traditionally been seen as a great social and economic equalizer. Our own institution has been credited with helping to create a middle class in a region that was traditionally poor.

Ergo, who benefits by trying to convince people not to go to university? The people who are already at the top: the rich and wealthy and connected. People like Peter Thiel.

And my feelings of paranoia are made worse, not better, by these comments from David Brin:

(T)he “war on science” is only the most blatant, surface manifestation of a general campaign against all of our professional castes.

Name one that isn’t under fire from the new-right! Scientists, teachers, university professors, attorneys, civil servants, diplomats, journalists... heck even cops! And yes, if you have watched carefully, or know anything about the “miracle of 2006” – even the brilliant men and women of the United States Military Officer Corps have been under assault, for years.

Why? Why has such a broad campaign to discredit (almost) every highly skilled and educated expert class become the centerpiece of conservatism? A hijacked version of conservatism that has Barry Goldwater spinning in his grave? You have only to look at the few centers of elite expertise that have been left alone! Those that are spared this all-out onslaught. The financial industry, industry lobbyist associations, and the hyper-rich.

It’s also interesting that Thiel’s arguments against higher education are, “People are taking out expensive loans to go to university.” As to the former, people might not have to take out loans if state support for public universities were not continually declining. To repeat the old joke, universities have gone from being “state supported” to “state funded” to “state located” to “state tolerated.”

Thiel also argues, “we don’t know what people learn.” There is an element of truth to the latter, and universities could do better in this regard.

Photo by Suzie Katz on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license. Hat tip to Hannah Waters.

1 comment:

Jeff Alexander said...

"Ergo,who benefits by trying to convince people not to go to university? The people who are already at the top: the rich and wealthy and connected."

Author and political essayist Dr. Jerry Pournelle writes frequently about the state of U.S. education, both higher and primary. He expects the wealthy and connected to continue encouraging college participation from those who will graduate with debt. His comment to a reader's email is here, in red below the "Further University Funding Stories" item. The relevant part:

"The goal in the US is to see to it that only the very rich will graduate without a crushing loan burden; thus there will be a number of educated bond slaves to work for those who graduate debt free. Of course the tax burden will make it nearly impossible for anyone to get into the class whose kids graduate debt free. A few will, by going to work for Goldman Sachs and such, but most professionals will no longer be middle class: they will be debtors who can be ordered about."