Megan McArdle on the Coming Burst of the College Bubble

Megan McArdle:

…Just as homeowners took out equity loans to buy themselves spa bathrooms and chef’s kitchens and told themselves that they were really building value with every borrowed dollar, today’s college students can buy themselves a four-year vacation in an increasingly well-upholstered resort, and everyone congratulates them for investing in themselves.

…When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, “Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?” The answer, Caplan says, is that they’re mostly there for a credential, not learning. “Why does cheating work?” he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. “If you don’t learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there’s no reason for us to do it.” But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

There has, of course, always been a fair amount of credentialism in education. Ten years ago, when I entered business school at the University of Chicago, the career-services person who came to talk to our class said frankly, “We could put you on a cruise ship for the next two years and it wouldn’t matter.

…If students are gaining real, valuable skills in school, then putting more students into college will increase the productive capacity of firms and the economy—a net gain for everyone. Credentials, meanwhile, are a zero-sum game. They don’t create value; they just reallocate it, in the same way that rising home values serve to ration slots in good public schools. If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won’t get