The Education Bubble, Part I

For most of the life of the United States of America one of the biggest dreams was that the next generation would exceed what their parents had achieved. Horatio Alger, “any boy can grow up to be president,” “I want my children to have a better education than I did…” Generation after generation did see increases in terms of better lives, more creature comforts, and the thriving of the Protestant Ethic.

The slow, agonizing death of that dream began in 1913 with the establishment of the Fed. It was damaged further by the behavior of the Fed and the big money men through events which led to the Great Depression, and suffered mortal blows under Roosevelt and Truman. The avalanche of irrational spending and social legislation since that time has lead to impractical expectations that could never have been true in any country at any time…after America in the early nineteen hundreds.

“Achievement” based on our own talents and effort has has been replaced by the entitlement mentality and the politics of envy. Passing lightly, for the moment, over the fiscal impossibility of Mr. Obama’s latest scheme to duplicate a chicken in every pot — “A college education for every young American!” — this is yet another feel-good, gimme, pie-in-the-sky statist ploy. In a nation with the drop out rates and widespread illiteracy among youngsters, how does anyone propose to qualify every last kid in America for matriculation? Where are the extra classrooms, textbooks, and teachers to come from?

The whole idea is ludicrous because no matter what the Constitution says (not that statists care), all men are not created equal intellectually. All men are not created equal in terms of what they want to do with their lives or what they would find fulfilling careers. Some of us do not want a MacMansion if it means living in the city. Some would stay cramped in a railroad flat in NYC for decades just to be in the Big Apple. Some like being mechanics and plumbers and electricians, careers which provide them with considerable personal satisfaction and very much above average incomes. Some don’t want to do anything except lie around watching TV or to talk trash, smoke dope, mug strangers, and “draw” welfare.

I did an analysis in 1990 and discovered that over 90% of all youth going before the courts in Seattle were functionally or totally illiterate. How does Mr. Obama propose to turn such into college graduates? A shockingly disproportionate number of “gifted” kids drop out of school, bored senseless with the watered down curriculum and “social” programs. Some, in time, will earn a GED and go to college; many will be wasted.

Each generation in the last century saw a lessening of expectations academically. Use a search engine to find the final exam for the 8th grade — as high as undergraduate education went late in the 19th Century — for Kansas, I think in 1895, although it may have been 1875. I have two college degrees and have done graduate work in five fields. I could pass that exam, but I certainly could not cover myself with glory.

The HS education of the Thirties was the equivalent of a BA in the Sixties. Very few of those who have been graduated since the Eighties will ever begin to know what the average college graduate knew in the Viet Nam era. The real truth is that most of the erudition the highly-educated have came from work they had done on their own because they wanted to know. They view education as a life-long pursuit.

These days we have a show asking “Are you smarter than a fifth grader?” We have millions who never even heard of diagramming a sentence.

Two years ago a high school junior in a “good” school in Houston took Biology. At her age, we were dissecting angle worms the first day and worked our ways up through rats, eels, and cats. HER class went to nearby Galveston and got a small shark. The course of instruction consisted of keeping the shark alive until the last week of school when the teacher dissected it. This is not the sort of biological “knowledge” that leads to future research geniuses. Neither does “Bowling,” another of her classes, or “Yearbook.” She had yet to have mastered the multiplication tables and was still on “pre-Algebra.” I had my first real Algebra course in the 7th grade and three more in high school plus geometry, Latin, Spanish, and Business Law, which stands me in good stead to this day. A college education these days is little more than a necessary stamp of the ticket and does not begin to guarantee even an entry level job, as witness how few recently-graduated lawyers were able to get jobs in that field ten years ago and ever since. We’ve got more lawyers than we need and nowhere near enough engineers, veterinarians, and butchers.

We cannot make genuine college graduates, with what most of us think that term should mean, out of every bit of the raw material at hand. Kids who read poorly, if at all, have no idea how percentages work, and think they are “entitled” to free food, housing, insurance, and medical care are not college material, any more than all of them can become stars in the NBA, successful actresses, or morticians.

Naturally, we cannot set the matter of cost aside. The federal government has beggared this nation for generations and is on a rampage in this century that cannot fail to usher in The Greater Depression. Japan has been suffering from Depression for 19 years, now, and it didn’t spend nearly as much as Washington did. There are so many “social” programs now, and so many more being demanded, that it is not feasible to fund college even for those who qualify even under the current very lax standards.

College is a sheer waste of time for those who have neither the inclination nor the ability to succeed there. Year after year the costs have gone up, and the degree it took four years to earn in my day now takes six. Rather like car loans. Less product for more money.

We can all but guarantee that with true joblessness running nearly 20% (by the standards used during the Great Depression), firms cutting back hours and cutting salaries, and the difficulties universities are having getting operating funds because charitable giving is down, that prices will continue to rise, enrollment will drop (making cost per student even higher), and we will see increasing defaults on student loans. My son has about $75,000′ worth, himself, for which he was graduated summa cum laude and has an MBA. That is also over a year’s salary for him. To add to the strain, through governmental witchery some of those student loans got thrown over into a program with 15% interest rates, breaking the agreement Andrew had made! Nobody consulted him; they just broke the contract and said, “This is how it is now.”

I have written before that the future of higher education is on-line schooling, just as the best option for fortunate children is home-schooling. Three years ago it cost almost exactly what going to the University of Texas for ‘Drew’s MBA would have…but his books were included, classes were never closed to enrollment, and he didn’t spend a great many dangerous, expensive hours on freeways, hunting parking places, or hanging around campus between classes. His work involved all written projects and reports, developing the writing skills he had learned at home. (By the time your mama the editor has marked up all of your papers for three years…)

There isn’t even an illusion of pie in the sky any more. The big rock candy mountain is down to a pile of grubby shards. ALL of the children in America may not and can not go to college for free or even otherwise, and $4000/a year or even a semester is a token. A college education these days costs as much to the families — or a state — as does incarcerating a felon, although it yields a better proportion of taxpayers eventually.

Next time we will discuss other factors which lead to the dismal level of “scholarship” in America and what that portends for the future. Governmental policies have driven away manufacturing jobs, and brains have been drained. There will be less and less interest in “service” industries. My focus is always on what we, as individuals, can do to solve problems for ourselves. We can see that our children do not end up unable to distinguish between they’re, their, and there, or confused over whether to write “companies” or “company’s.” Education, charity, and financial responsibility all need to begin at home, as they did long ago.

Linda Brady Traynham

September 16, 2009

The Daily Reckoning