To rein in the problem of the higher education bubble and student loan debt, we first need to understand why so many adolescents are going to college in the first place.
The widespread but incorrect view is that it is for careerist reasons such as learning useful knowledge, acquiring useful skills, getting to know the ins and outs of some sector of the economy, or networking with potential employers. Or, if the observer is more cynical, a college diploma is for signaling to potential employers that you are smart and conscientious enough to be worth employing, regardless of what you may or may not have studied.
This is why the Baby Boomers first poured out of their small home towns and into college, but that was way back in the '70s. Unfortunately, given their control over the media, the Boomer view persists to this day.
In their day, the only point of going to college was to get a diploma, and since the generation before them wasn't very credentialed, a bachelor's degree gave them a substantial leg up when they were searching for their first real jobs. They had to convince employers that a piece of paper from a college was important, but they won that propaganda war, perhaps owing also to a shift in the mindset of the employer class.
In any case, they didn't care too much about "campus life" beyond the basics of there being a willing student body to get drunk and make out, and an utterly no-frills house or apartment to host the party. They could have gotten high back in their home towns -- and probably did already during high school -- so the point of going off to college was primarily to be able to secure a decent middle-class job and decent pay as a young adult.
As more and more high school grads decided to go to college, a larger and larger fraction of 20-somethings had a bachelor's, diluting its relative value in the job market.
However, we shouldn't let that fact distract us from the changing purpose of college as the higher education bubble as inflated to such extremes. For if students were truly concerned with the career-and-income value of a degree, once they wised up to the diluted value with so many of them in circulation, they would take measures to try to get the most possible out of it.
Whereas before students might have majored in arts and humanities, they would now only major in engineering, accounting, and other employable majors. They would also bust their ass more in their coursework, to make sure their skill-set was maxed out come job-hunting time after graduation. And they would ruthlessly scrutinize the colleges they were thinking of applying to -- with a keen eye to which ones added the most value to the incomes of their graduates.
Instead we observe the exact opposite. "Value added to income" is not just hovering somewhere out in their peripheral vision, they pay no attention to it at all when narrowing down a list a colleges to apply to. They pride themselves on doing as little and as poor-quality work as possible in their classes: "All right, BS-ed another essay an hour before it was due, and still got a B! Unstoppable!" Unstoppable grade inflation, moron -- that's why you got good grades. They make a point of shying away from employable majors, with a steady proliferation of junk majors fed by a ballooning demand for pointless studies -- communications, business, gender studies, African-American studies, etc. Majors that are established and respectable, yet still unemployable, continue to be popular -- philosophy, psychology, history, etc.
If it seems like students aren't going to college to prepare for a better career and higher income and consumption, it's because they're not. Instead, they are preparing for the competition in the arena of lifestyle striving rather than wealth / career striving.
In this earlier post, I discussed these two separate avenues of competitiveness in the context of generational differences. Silents and Boomers -- the Me Generation -- are career strivers, with Boomers pouring into colleges to get a leg up on the Silents, who were career strivers but did not go to college in large numbers. Competitive people will never leave the battle arena, so the careerist avenue has been closed off to new competitors. Gen X and Millennials chose to compete in an arena that was less saturated with contestants, and found it in lifestyle-based competition.
A big part of lifestyle competition is knowledge, but not necessarily of the scholarly or intellectual kind. It's whatever you need to know about, have an opinion on, and be prepared to discuss and passive-aggressively debate with the others in the contest. "Do vaccines cause autism?" is of minor importance on a scholarly or scientific level. But it just happened to be one of those areas of knowledge where lifestyle strivers became expected to have very informed and strong opinions on, whether they are pro or con.
The other part of lifestyle competition is an emphasis on leisure -- not so much with having loads of free time, but what you do with it. Do your leisure activities make you a superior person, or reveal you to be a sub-human loser? There is only so much leisure time in the day, so these contests will revolve around the most basic and frequent non-work activities -- food and drink, lounging around the home environment, sports or athletics, etc.
Combine the contest over knowledge with the contest over leisure activities, and you get decadence. Lifestyle strivers become obsessed with increasingly arcane points about seemingly mundane leisure activities, and having to flit from one fad to the next in order to not appear to be taking a break but still vigorously invested in the competition. Who is cooking the most original and titillating variation on the mac-and-cheese dinner? Who has the latest style jogging shorts? Who has the most on-point living room decor? Whose playlist contains bands that no one else has ever heard of? Ad nauseam.
If all that is the long road ahead of adolescents, then they had better get a solid training in young adulthood. In fact their parents already model the adult lifestyle striver behavior while the children are still school-aged -- bringing home bacon-and-avocado mac-and-cheese for dinner from Whole Foods, so their kids will know what to order when they're on their own. The parents drag the kids along to IKEA so that they'll learn what kinds of trendy furniture to pick out once they're living away at a college dorm room, or their first apartment.
But the parents can only accomplish so much by modeling the behavior. The kids actually have to leave home and begin lifestyle striving in earnest on their own. Hence the current form that the college experience takes.
I've already detailed how the lifestyle-striving orientation guides their choices of college, major, and other aspects that relate most directly to employment and income prospects. Let's take a look at some other revealing ways that college life is more about preparing kids for lifestyle striving rather than career striving.
- Students would rather not work. If the purpose were to take their first baby steps toward a grown-up career, they would all want to work. If they do work today, it's only to provide a little spending money for their lifestyle pursuits, not to learn the ins and outs, nor to establish trust with an employer and get a good recommendation for future employers.
- Colleges spend big bucks not on anything that will help their students earn more money or be more employable. The overwhelming trend during the higher ed bubble has been on providing more leisure and lifestyle services, both mundane amenities (cafe in the library) and spectacles (pro-level sports stadium). Libraries are hang-out spots where no books are read, instead of places for browsing the stacks and reading books that would help you earn more after graduation.
- Dining halls must cater to the nascent foodie snobs, offering charcuterie rather than meat loaf, located in separate "stations" rather than in a single assembly-line, with lighting and decoration appropriate for a sit-down restaurant rather than a public school cafeteria.
- Exercise equipment that a person would ordinarily need a gym membership to have access to.
- Always having something to do for boosting your arts-and-culture quotient. Even mid-tier colleges spend big bucks to acquire more fine art to display in professionally designed galleries. The film club screens the classics every weekend. And there are regular performances from music and dance groups, from both students and professionals.
- What the particular college tells other rival strivers about your lifestyle. Two colleges are equally good at academics and all that other unimportant stuff, but you chose that one that signals you're an urban boho-chic type of striver, rather than the sports buff type of striver. A college's brand and brand value revolve around these qualitative lifestyle matters.
And so on and so forth.
None of these sweeping, ubiquitous changes to college life make any sense under the view that college is for getting a credential, leading to a good job, leading to good income, leading to higher consumption levels. They make perfect sense under the view that young people today expect to have no shot at the career competition and are opting instead for lifestyle competition, and that the college years are training them for that kind of striving.
It's missing the point somewhat to portray college life as merely a four-year playground experience, as though their decadence will be useless in the real world afterward. A lot of effort still goes into mastering the ins and outs of lifestyle striving -- what topics to be knowledgeable about, what pastimes to pursue, which foods are cool, which interior design schemes are cool, etc.
This isn't just fitting into youth culture or the broader culture -- there's a sense that they're going to be tested on this stuff for the rest of their lives, and they have to be able to keep up with the lifestyle contests no matter how the wheel of fashion spins. So it really is a kind of training or apprenticeship that segues seamlessly into adult status competition (rather than being a pointless vacation), only it's for lifestyle striving rather than career striving.
To wrap things up, how does this correct view let us see what's going on with the loud demands among Millennials to have their student loan debt canceled or to receive a tuition-free college life from the government?
Well, it won't do us any good to lecture them about how they can pay off their debt once they use their degree to get a decent job. They know their degree is worthless -- they went to college for lifestyle striving, not to earn more money.
What they're really asking for is state-subsidized training and apprenticeship in the domain that they'll be competing for status in as adults -- lifestyle contests. In their minds, it's akin to state-subsidized high school classes in math, science, and technology for those who are planning to strive in the career domain. Fairness would seem to argue for subsidized training for the lifestyle strivers too.
Of course, one of those domains is productive for society, and the other only enriches the individual's reputation. But the productive niche is already beyond saturated with incumbents and foreigners to whom the work could be outsourced. We can't expect most young adults to focus on career-building when there are hardly any decent careers waiting to be filled. It's only natural that they will mostly turn to lifestyle striving as their form of "bettering themselves," while accepting a crummy job and crummy living circumstances.
Thus, the decadent and fruitless competition in the lifestyle domain among Gen X-ers and especially Millennials is ultimately the fault of all the competitiveness in the career domain, where Silents and Boomers still run the show and get most of the wealth and status. As if hyper-competitiveness in the career world weren't bad enough in itself (white collar crime taking off like a rocket, selling out the country to make an extra buck, and the like), their tenacious incumbency has created a ripple effect whereby the later generations are not bothering to enter that saturated niche and are focusing their energy and effort on decadence contests instead of something productive.
Reining in the competitiveness in the career world would not only clean things up in the productive part of the economy, it would also free up more decent jobs for younger adults, blunting the appeal of lifestyle striving. Lower demand for lifestyle striving would deflate the higher ed bubble and restore sanity to tuition costs, as well as restore the college's mission to being productive somehow (economically, intellectually, or whatever, but somehow).
It's beyond the scope of this post to talk about how to start reining in the anarchic war of all against all in the career world. The important lesson for now, though, is that many of the things that are going wrong in the world are interconnected, often with one causing another, so that reforming one area will set off a chain reaction and reform some other area as well.