07 January 2012

An Alternative Explanation to the College Bubble

Direct and indirect federal subsidy is often offered as the primary reason for the occurrence of the current college bubble.  Most effects of the college bubble are traced back to federal funding, in the forms of student grants and subsidized loans, not to mention research grants as well as general academic funding and diversity grants (wherein a college or university receives federal funding for certain campus offerings, mostly related to making women and minorities feel good about themselves).  Basically, federal money is the cause of the college bubble.

This view is not altogether incorrect, but it seems to ignore the role of federal regulation and the role of shifting cultural/societal views regarding student self-esteem.  The two generally go hand-in-hand and feed off each other, and so trying to delink the two is impossible.  At any rate, what’s neglected in the discussion of the college bubble is the concept of grade inflation.

Grade inflation has occurred primarily for two reasons.  First, as mentioned before, the relatively recent self-esteem movement has encouraged the dumbing down of the general curriculum in order to make subpar students feel good about themselves.  The history of this movement is dodgy, relative to political intervention.  There is no doubt that the government has latched on to the self-esteem movement, but it is not clear if the government was the first mover.  Even if it weren’t, private desire and public policy has basically become a self-reinforcing feedback loop, so the point is basically moot.  At any rate, the effects of the self-esteem movement are clear, in that students perform moderately well, relative to the world (see Steve Sailer’s take on PISA scores, eg.), while being told that they are highly intelligent.  Fortunately, the self-esteem movement does not have as much momentum as it once did, at least from my perspective.

Second, the government has certainly played a role in grade inflation due to the increasing federalization of public schools.  The federal government loves uniformity, particularly of outcome, and school outcomes are no exception.  As my recent book review pointed out, in brief, the increased bureaucratization of public education has led to a situation where students perform better on an admittedly arbitrary class at the expense of learning things that aren’t on said test.  NCLB, in particular, is responsible for this recent effect, and it is part of a larger trend.  This trend has led to the inflation of grades in two ways. First, the decreased role of non-test subjects has led to less classroom time dedicated to them, which means that grades in these subjects are based on a smaller sample size of work, and teachers are likely to cut kids slack when grading (at least in my own experience).  Second, teachers have cheated on the tests in order to make sure that the kids do well, which sometimes makes students seem smarter than they would otherwise.

Primary and secondary education simultaneously suffered from dumbed-down curriculum and grade inflation, shortchanging intelligent children.  They needed some way to fight back and prove their higher intelligence and cognitive abilities, which is where college comes in.  While direct federal subsidy of post-secondary education is blamed for the current college bubble—and rightfully so, I might add—this is not the whole picture.  The dumbing down of public education has also contributed to the need for college because it now provides the surest means for intelligent students to finally get ahead.

If education is viewed as a way to signal work fitness, then a high school degree has become essentially meaningless.  Graduating from high school is no longer a guarantee that one is proficient in math and can speak and write in plain, understandable English.  Many colleges tacitly admit this fact with their offering of basic remedial courses.  Thus, having a high school education no longer signals that one can be counted on to be a reliable employee.

Thus, intelligent students have two options:  drop out of or avoid high school, or go to college.  The former is not a good signal for future employment prospects, and thus should be avoided by all but the most entrepreneurial of intelligent students.  The latter option—going to college—is the most viable option to demonstrate employment fitness.  Thus, intelligent students can no longer simply graduate with good grades at the top of their high school class, they must also get a post-secondary education of some sort as well.

Therefore, while the current increases in college enrollment are undoubtedly the consequence of direct and indirect federal subsidy, it is both foolish and dangerous to ignore the effect of the self-esteem movement and federal regulation, and how both have distorted the signal of secondary education.  As such, popping the college bubble won’t be as simple as ending federal regulation.  Popping the bubble will also require federal deregulation, and a more appropriate view of the role of self-esteem in a child’s educational development.


  1. Grade inflation is a necessary consequence of the bubble, rather than a cause. 100 years ago, about the same fraction of people graduated from a much more rigorous high school as now get bachelors degrees in America. If we decide we need that many college educated people, and ignore the fact that not everyone is above average, grade inflation and further cheapening of course work is inevitable. There is only so much brains to go around. It's about the same now as it was when a high school graduate could write latin poetry and do basic calculus.

  2. @scottlocklin- actually, it's most likely that grade inflation is part of a self-reinforcing feedback loop. From what I can tell, the self-esteem movement preceded federal subsidy of education, though the two are now inextricably linked.