There have been predictions that the higher education bubble will burst for at least a decade now — I remember really awakening to the issue because of some excellent writing on the subject by George Leef back in 2008-2009.

The problems are multifarious but many critiques start with the unsustainable amount of college loan debt that U.S. students have taken on ($1.5 trillion, second only to the amount of mortgage debt), but I think the issue is in the way we talk about it is the real root of the issue.

Teachers and schools and parents tell students about the famous wage benefit of the B.A. or B.S. They hear ad nauseum that successful people have college degrees, and popular culture sends a similar, reinforcing signals that the only meaningful rite of passage to adulthood is a four-year-long residential college or university experience.

Higher education used to be a niche product. Thank goodness there is now broad access to this option. But we don’t have to go so far in the other direction to use as a measuring stick for success “college for all.”

It is naive to expect higher education to meet the needs of the majority of employers or even for society’s need for entrepreneurs. But by telling students that their worth (both self-worth and potential value-add to the economy) are dependent on this one path and giving them “free” money to attend a four-year institution, are we at all surprised that many of them are pretty dissaffected? That many are sympathetic to the idea of “free” college tuition or the blanket forgiveness of student loans? They did what their parents and society told them to do, and many are worse off because of it.

If a student attends college or university because she wants to challenge her mind to learn rigorous academic subjects, taught by serious professors, she ought to have many good options for where she can obtain this kind of education. Instead, the vast majority of higher education institutions are not set up to appeal to these students.

That’s simply because a good number of students choose not to pursue these subjects. As a life-long fan and promoter of the liberal arts, I am fully aware of this fact, and fully comfortable with it.

If the marketplace weren’t weighted the way it is (through the federal student loan system) towards attending four-year colleges/universities, students would have to actually take into account the costs of their educational decisions. This would lead to the closure or reorganization of some higher education institutions. It would also force those that remain to choose what their value proposition is — a rigorous education in the arts and sciences or an equally rigorous training in technical (or applied) subjects.

Each path has its benefits and drawbacks. There is no way for bureaucrats in departments of education or school districts to make this kind of call for each student that they are charged with preparing. The only answer is for each student to make these kinds of trade-offs for himself, and the only way for him to make this decision with skin-in-the-game is for him to be able to see and (to the extent possible) bear the full costs and benefits of each path.

I think in the end that reframing the conversation we have about post-secondary education is the first step. A few proposals:

  • Raise awareness among teachers, school leaders, and parents that the rhetoric that they use to describe post-secondary options is extremely important. Panning technical school or setting up expectations that the “best” outcome is attending a four-year college can be very easy positions for college-educated adults to slip into conversation. But students internalize these kinds of signals.
  • More specialized high schools. Choice policies can support this goal, and if students attend schools that actually value their interests or pursuits, they are more likely to be successful.
  • Make it a little harder to get into college debt. Not impossible, just harder. College debt is particularly pernicious in cases where a student doesn’t even emerge with a degree, so policies that make this burden less likely may be worthwhile.
  • Online education options are better and better all the time. Let’s consider what this may mean for students getting high quality, lower cost courses in high school and beyond.
  • HR departments at major employers can reconsider using the B.A. or B.S. as a screening mechanism for hiring.
  • Support systems, like the Texas State Technical College, that get an amazing ROI for their graduates in terms of employment in middle-skills jobs. This system is an example of how public dollars can be spent efficiently to meet workforce needs of employers while also benefitting students with widely recognized (as opposed to proprietary) credentials.

I’m glad I was able to begin a liberal arts education as an undergraduate. I want serious liberal arts pursuits to flourish, but we will continue to see these subjects founder as long as they are forced to compete in a zero-sum game against “liberal arts lite” — disciplines that are specifically designed to appeal to students with weaker academic preparation or interest.

We will continue to see widespread disaffection as well as long-term economic repercussions as long as students (influenced both by policy and cultural expectations) use time and resources on majors that give them neither a real grounding in traditional arts or science disciplines nor the mastery of any technical domain.

It’s time to stop talking down the kinds of preparation that can enable people to live meaningful and rewarding lives. It’s time to stop communicating, implicitly and explicitly, that gaining a technical certification is somehow a less than optimal outcome for any given student.

It is possible in one life to gain both a liberal arts education and to gain technical proficiency in, say, coding. It obviously doesn’t have to be a binary choice for an individual, but it does seem clear that relying on a single delivery system (four-year colleges/universities) to provide both is simply not reasonable, and isn’t the approach we take in other areas of significant investment in our lives.

Disaggregating the sources from which we get various learning will only make the providers of these options better, lower the costs, and multiply our choices. It will also give education providers an ability to specialize and professionalize in ways that they haven’t been able to before.

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