May 7, 2009

Mainstream media ignoring the education bubble?

Over at, I put up a post on detecting the education bubble's effects even in high school. Toward the end, I mentioned that it's odd that lots of blog writers use the term "education bubble," whereas it doesn't appear even once in the NYT. Maybe they're ignorant of the trend? Or maybe as part of the whole credentialist system, they don't want to let the cat out of the bag about lots of people wasting their time in college? Let's see.

Here are graphs showing the annual undergraduate tuition for 4-year degree-granting institutions in the US, adjusted for inflation (data here), and the coverage of the topic of tuition in the NYT:

Tuition has been soaring exponentially at least since 1976, while coverage of tuition has bounced around but remained pretty much constant. You can bet that would not happen if crime rates were rising exponentially for 30 years.

Now, here is a graph that compares coverage and cost of tuition. It is the number of articles divided by the cost, in thousands, of tuition. It answers the question: "For every $1,000 that tuition costs, how many articles were written about tuition?"

Since coverage is fairly constant (using absolute or fractional coverage), while cost is exponentially increasing, the ratio shows an exponential decay curve. The alarm bells are not going off, despite suggestive evidence that we're headed for trouble. Again, you wouldn't see this if we had an exponential increase in terrorist attacks year after year for 30 years. But it's higher education, which is a Good Thing, and therefore cannot involve high risks or costs. So, we don't need to bother reporting more and more about rising costs and what effect they may have down the line.

We need to stop sanctifying higher education and wake up to the reality that most "colleges" are just glorified daycare centers, and that most non-technical and non-professional graduate programs are pyramid schemes -- did you ever notice how there are lots of grad students and few professors? How will they all get jobs as professors or even lecturers? Obvious answer: they won't. But those who do can help recruit another 10 grad students per professor and dangle the carrot in their faces, and so on again.

Unless the plan involves a technical or professional school that brings about a clear boost to job security, the next time you hear someone, usually aged 24 to 39, say that they "really want to go back to school for my Master's," tell them to get a life.


  1. Some of the people who go back for masters degrees are teachers who attend on a part-time basis. In many states, people who are hired as teachers with just bachelors degrees are given a certain length of time to get masters degrees. I don't know if there's any way to determine just what percentage of graduate students fall into this category.


  2. i'd bet a significant number includes education. it's one of the only two ways to achieve any discernible raise (along with National Board Certification). in addition to the fact that before the recession anyway, a number of schools subsidize part of the cost for grad school b/c it looks good to have xyz percentage of teachers with a master's or PhD.

  3. The tuition is based on undergrads.

  4. For engineering and science professors, grad students are cheap research and teaching labor. $30k a year to do highly skilled work and babysit the intro-level undergrads. This segment doesn't fall into the ponzi scheme classification as most engineering and many science grad students eventually go corporate because there are very good salaries waiting (present economy is an exception). Typically there is a strong benefit to get an advanced degree for scientists and engineers.

  5. 1. Official tuition costs are, for the most part, completely irrelevant. Only the very rich are going to pay the full amount, and even then they can get scholarships. Even an upper-middle class family will pay far less than the listed tuition, and much of the aid comes in the form of grants rather than loans and thus doesn't have to be repaid. At Harvard, for example, a family making $180k would pay 10% of their income for their child to attend, or less than half of the official tuition.

    2. As Anonymous mentioned, many grad students have no intention of becoming professors, instead choosing to work for corporations. Biotech firms, for example, hire tons of PhDs, and many tech companies like Google have a strong preference for people with advanced degrees. They're also often a prerequisite for working in academic administration, editing research journals, jobs at government laboratories, and so on.

  6. I mentioned in the body of the post that it was non-professional, non-technical grad programs that are pyramid schemes. Read before speaking.

    Soaring tuition doesn't matter because someone else will pay for it? Money doesn't grow on trees, so the burden on the overall economy doesn't disappear by going need-blind.

  7. Well, there really isn't a burden on the economy as the official tuition costs are somewhat arbitrary. The schools with the highest tuitions like Harvard, Stanford, and so on all have sufficiently large endowments to pay for the cost of attendance for every student from the interest alone and still make money. It's sort of like those ads where they say you're getting a $500 value for only $50; you can claim something costs whatever you want, but all that matters is what it actually costs the buyer. Private universities are businesses, and they wouldn't sell their product at a price that wasn't sustainable for them.

  8. Yeah you did exempt technical. My bad. As I write this, Obama is blabbing on about education and job retraining.! Let's all spend more tax dollars on diploma mills.

    Was at a wedding a few weeks ago and had to listen to a 30 yo woman complain about how she's "more interesting" now that she's lived abroad and has an Ivy League masters degree in English. Yet she was perplexed at why more men were interested in her at 22 than now. So much for "education" as she missed the obvious.


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