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If Something Cannot Go On Forever, It Will Stop!
on January 13, 2014
Glenn Harlan Reynolds, founder of Instapundit and writer of two other (brief) books on the necessity of education reform, has written a more comprehensive book explaining the how, why, and (kind of) the what next of the education bubble. Unlike some pundits, Reynolds suggests that there is a bubble not just in higher education, but in k-12 education too: a perfect storm of education becoming more expensive, the (economic) value of diplomas and degrees declining, and the technology that makes creating and using new educational forms more and more viable. As Reynolds likes to put it (in the words of economist Herbert Stein), "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop." And that is what he sees for both higher education and k-12.
Simply put, the education bubble - like any bubble - bursts when the cost of an investment begins to outweigh the likely return on investment. And, at this point, the cost of college degrees is proving to outweigh the rise in earning potential one gets by getting one. (And if anything, some have argued that increases in earning potential of college degrees owes more to the value of the certification - the degree itself - than the skills gained in obtaining the degree. So, what happens when employers start to question whether they are putting inflated value on the piece of paper and start hiring more people without degrees? Can you hear the bubble bursting?)
Oh, you say; well, education should be about personal growth and not increasing one's future earning potential? Well, sure, but not when it carries a five-figure price tag! (How many consumer services carry that steep a price... and still have willing consumers?) Or, maybe the government should subsidize more? Well, the problem is that like when anything is subsidized, the most likely result is that costs rise to absorb the subsidy. And if we start thinking the rising expenses and diminishing returns of k-12 education isn't terribly problematic because it is tax funded, then it is best to remember who is paying those taxes; answer: all of us. And how is it that we are teaching young people in the 21st century with a public school system that, very sadly, hasn't adapted terribly much in terms of teaching methods from its 19th century roots? Is that sustainable? If something can't go on forever....
The first half of the book or so is devoted to explaining why these bubbles in higher education and k-12 have formed and providing evidence that they've formed (and that more and more people are looking for ways to bypass traditional educational channels, often with the help of technology). The second half or so is a fairly vague outline of what Reynolds thinks will happen next. In fairness, Reynolds is vague because he (correctly) notes that no one really knows what will happen next, and the best we can do is to have some broad ideas of what might have to happen next. Vaguely, Reynolds suggests that both new forms of (what we now know as) k-12 and higher education will have to be less expensive and more adaptable to individuals, and probably something that embraces new technologies in a way that neither existing higher or k-12 education seems terribly interested in doing. (Reynolds seems quite taken by the idea - at least for higher education - that universities maintain their certification and degree-granting role while becoming more open about allowing students to learn materials on their own or at their own speed, possibly even without taking classes in favor of self-study.)
Those who have read Reynold's other books on education will find little new here, and as I mention, Reynolds's prescriptions and predictions are somewhat vague; while that may be disappointing in some way, it is also to his credit. Where Reynolds shines is in explaining (with a fair degree of historical accuracy, I think) the k-12 and higher education bubble and the evidence that it is either bursting already or, where it isn't, it will soon burst. And, also to his credit, he describes all this with a surprising tone of optimism (even though he is an academic).... which gives me (also an academic) a bit of hope that, if we all read and play our cards right, we can come through all of this with something better and stronger than what came before.