Megan McArdle on the Coming Burst of the College Bubble

Peter Yang for Newsweek

Why are we spending so much money on college?

And why are we so unhappy about it? We all seem to agree that a college education is wonderful, and yet strangely we worry when we see families investing so much in this supposedly essential good. Maybe it's time to ask a question that seems almost sacrilegious: is all this investment in college education really worth it?

The answer, I fear, is that it's not. For an increasing number of kids, the extra time and money spent pursuing a college diploma will leave them worse off than they were before they set foot on campus.

For my entire adult life, an education has been the most important thing for middle-class households. My parents spent more educating my sister and me than they spent on their house, and they're not the only ones ... and, of course, for an increasing number of families, most of the cost of their house is actually the cost of living in a good school district. Questioning the value of a college education seems a bit like questioning the value of happiness, or fun.

Donald Marron, a private-equity investor whose portfolio companies have included a student-loan firm and an educational-technology startup, says, "If you're in a position to be able to pay for education, it's a bargain." Those who can afford a degree from an elite institution are still in an enviable position. "You've got that with you for your whole life," Marron pointed out. "It's a real imprimatur that's with you, as well as access to all these relationships."

That's true. I have certainly benefited greatly from the education my parents sacrificed to give me. On the other hand, that kind of education has gotten a whole lot more expensive since I was in school, and jobs seem to be getting scarcer, not more plentiful. These days an increasing number of commentators are nervously noting the uncomfortable similarities to the housing bubble, which started with parents telling their children that "renting is throwing your money away," and ended in mass foreclosures.

An education can't be repossessed, of course, but neither can the debt that financed it be shed, not even, in most cases, in bankruptcy. And it's hard to ignore the similarities: the rapid run-up in prices, at rates much higher than inflation; the increasingly frenetic recruitment of new buyers, borrowing increasingly hefty sums; the sense that you are somehow saving for the future while enjoying an enhanced lifestyle right now, and of course, the mountain of debt.

The price of a McDonald's hamburger has risen from 85 cents in 1995 to about a dollar today. The average price of all goods and services has risen about 50 percent. But the price of a college education has nearly doubled in that time. Is the education that today's students are getting twice as good? Are new workers twice as smart? Have they become somehow massively more expensive to educate?

Perhaps a bit. Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who heads the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, notes that while we may have replaced millions of filing clerks and payroll assistants with computers, it still takes one professor to teach a class. But he also notes that "we've been slow to adopt new technology because we don't want to. We like getting up in front of 25 people. It's more fun, but it's also damnably expensive."

Vedder adds, "I look at the data, and I see college costs rising faster than inflation up to the mid-1980s by 1 percent a year. Now I see them rising 3 to 4 percent a year over inflation. What has happened? The federal government has started dropping money out of airplanes." Aid has increased, subsidized loans have become available, and "the universities have gotten the money." Economist Bryan Caplan, who is writing a book about education, agrees: "It's a giant waste of resources that will continue as long as the subsidies continue."

Promotional literature for colleges and student loans often speaks of debt as an "investment in yourself." But an investment is supposed to generate income to pay off the loans. More than half of all recent graduates are unemployed or in jobs that do not require a degree, and the amount of student-loan debt carried by households has more than quintupled since 1999. These graduates were told that a diploma was all they needed to succeed, but it won't even get them out of the spare bedroom at Mom and Dad's. For many, the most tangible result of their four years is the loan payments, which now average hundreds of dollars a month on loan balances in the tens of thousands.

A lot of ink has been spilled over the terrifying plight of students with $100,000 in loans and a job that will not cover their $900-a-month payment. Usually these stories treat this massive debt as an unfortunate side effect of spiraling college costs. But in another view, the spiraling college costs are themselves an unfortunate side effect of all that debt. When my parents went to college, it was an entirely reasonable proposition to "work your way through" a four-year, full-time college program, especially at a state school, where tuition was often purely nominal. By the time I matriculated, in 1990, that was already a stretch. But now it's virtually impossible to conceive of high-school students making enough with summer jobs and part-time jobs during the school year to put themselves through a four-year school. Nor are their financially shaky parents necessarily in a position to pick up the tab, which is why somewhere between one half and two thirds of undergrads now come out of school with debt.

In a normal market, prices would be constrained by the disposable income available to pay them. But we've bypassed those constraints by making subsidized student loans widely available. No, not only making them available: telling college students that those loans are "good debt" that will enable them to make much more money later.

It's true about the money—sort of. College graduates now make 80 percent more than people who have only a high-school diploma, and though there are no precise estimates, the wage premium for an elite school seems to be even higher. But that's not true of every student. It's very easy to spend four years majoring in English literature and beer pong and come out no more employable than you were before you went in. Conversely, chemical engineers straight out of school can easily make triple or quadruple the wages of an entry-level high-school graduate.

James Heckman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, has examined how the returns on education break down for individuals with different backgrounds and levels of ability. "Even with these high prices, you're still finding a high return for individuals who are bright and motivated," he says. On the other hand, "if you're not college ready, then the answer is no, it's not worth it." Experts tend to agree that for the average student, college is still worth it today, but they also agree that the rapid increase in price is eating up more and more of the potential return. For borderline students, tuition hikes can push those returns into negative territory.

Effectively, we've treated the average wage premium as if it were a guarantee—and then we've encouraged college students to borrow against it. The result will be no surprise to anyone who has made the mistake of setting his or her teenager loose in a shopping mall with a credit card and no spending limit. Eighteen-year-olds demand amenities—high-speed Internet, well-upholstered classrooms, world-class fitness facilities—and in order to stay competitive, college administrators happily provide them. Then they raise the tuition for which the 18-year-olds are obediently borrowing the money.

"We have an academic arms race going on," says Vedder. "Salaries have done pretty well. Look at the president of Yale. Compare his salary now with his salary in 2000." In 2000, Richard Levin earned $561,709. By 2009, it was $1.63 million. "A typical university today has as many administrators as faculty."

Vedder also notes the decrease in teaching loads by tenured faculty, and the vast increase in nonacademic amenities like plush dorms and intercollegiate athletics. "Every campus has its climbing wall," he notes drily. "You cannot have a campus without a climbing wall."

Just as homeowners took out equity loans to buy themselves spa bathrooms and chef's kitchens and told themselves that they were really building value with every borrowed dollar, today's college students can buy themselves a four-year vacation in an increasingly well-upholstered resort, and everyone congratulates them for investing in themselves.

Unsurprisingly those 18-year-olds often don't look quite so hard at the education they're getting. In Academically Adrift, their recent study of undergraduate learning, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that at least a third of students gain no measurable skills during their four years in college. For the remainder who do, the gains are usually minimal. For many students, college is less about providing an education than a credential—a certificate testifying that they are smart enough to get into college, conformist enough to go, and compliant enough to stay there for four years.

When I was a senior, one of my professors asked wonderingly, "Why is it that you guys spend so much time trying to get as little as possible for your money?" The answer, Caplan says, is that they're mostly there for a credential, not learning. "Why does cheating work?" he points out. If you were really just in college to learn skills, it would be totally counterproductive. "If you don't learn the material, then you will have less human capital and the market will punish you—there's no reason for us to do it." But since they think the credential matters more than the education, they look for ways to get the credential as painlessly as possible.

There has, of course, always been a fair amount of credentialism in education. Ten years ago, when I entered business school at the University of Chicago, the career-services person who came to talk to our class said frankly, "We could put you on a cruise ship for the next two years and it wouldn't matter."

But how much, exactly, does credentialism matter? For years there's been a fierce debate among economists over how much of the value of a degree is credentials and how much the education. Heckman thinks the credentialism argument—what economists call "signaling"—is "way overstated." His work does show that a lot depends on outside factors like cognitive ability and early childhood health. But he says flatly that "no one thinks that schooling has no effect on ability."

That debate matters a lot, because while the value of an education can be very high, the value of a credential is strictly limited. If students are gaining real, valuable skills in school, then putting more students into college will increase the productive capacity of firms and the economy—a net gain for everyone. Credentials, meanwhile, are a zero-sum game. They don't create value; they just reallocate it, in the same way that rising home values serve to ration slots in good public schools. If employers have mostly been using college degrees to weed out the inept and the unmotivated, then getting more people into college simply means more competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs. And in the current environment, that means a lot of people borrowing money for jobs they won't get.

But we keep buying because after two decades prudent Americans who want a little financial security don't have much left. Lifetime employment, and the pensions that went with it, have now joined outhouses, hitching posts, and rotary-dial telephones as something that wide-eyed children may hear about from their grandparents but will never see for themselves. The fabulous stock-market returns that promised an alternative form of protection proved even less durable. At least we have the house, weary Americans told each other, and the luckier ones still do, as they are reminded every time their shaking hand writes out another check for a mortgage that's worth more than the home that secures it. What's left is ... investing in ourselves. Even if we're not such a good bet.

Between 1992 and 2008, the number of bachelor's degrees awarded rose almost 50 percent, from around 1.1 million to more than 1.6 million. According to Vedder, 60 percent of those additional students ended up in jobs that have not historically required a degree—waitress, electrician, secretary, mail carrier. That's one reason the past few decades have witnessed such an explosion in graduate and professional degrees, as kids who previously would have stopped at college look for ways to stand out in the job market.

It is in that market that students may first, finally, have begun to revolt. For decades, when former English majors wondered how to get out of their dead-end jobs, the answer was "go to law school"—an effect that was particularly pronounced in economic downturns. In 2010 in the Los Angeles Times, Mark Greenbaum warned prospective lawyers that "the number of new positions is likely to be fewer than 30,000 per year. That is far fewer than what's needed to accommodate the 45,000 juris doctors graduating from U.S. law schools each year."

That was the year that LSAT taking peaked, with 170,000 prospective lawyers signing up for the test. But then students apparently started heeding Greenbaum's warning. Two years later that figure dropped to just 130,000, lower than it had been in more than a decade. Law-school applications also dropped, from 88,000 to 67,000.

That's a heartening sign for those of us who believe that we've been graduating too many unemployable lawyers. But as we saw with the housing and dotcom booms, what comes after a bubble is not usually a return to a nice, sustainable equilibrium; it's chaos. Of course, the first thing to do when you're in a hole is stop digging. But that still leaves you in a pretty big hole.

Everyone seems to agree that the government, and parents, should be rethinking how we invest in higher education—and that employers need to rethink the increasing use of college degrees as crude screening tools for jobs that don't really require college skills. "Employers seeing a surplus of college graduates and looking to fill jobs are just tacking on that requirement," says Vedder. "De facto, a college degree becomes a job requirement for becoming a bartender."

We have started to see some change on the finance side. A law passed in 2007 allows many students to cap their loan payment at 10 percent of their income and forgives any balance after 25 years. But of course, that doesn't control the cost of education; it just shifts it to taxpayers. It also encourages graduates to choose lower-paying careers, which diminishes the financial return to education still further. "You're subsidizing people to become priests and poets and so forth," says Heckman. "You may think that's a good thing, or you may not." Either way it will be expensive for the government.

What might be a lot cheaper is putting more kids to work: not necessarily as burger flippers but as part of an educational effort. Caplan notes that work also builds valuable skills—probably more valuable for kids who don't naturally love sitting in a classroom. Heckman agrees wholeheartedly: "People are different, and those abilities can be shaped. That's what we've learned, and public policy should recognize that."

Heckman would like to see more apprenticeship-style programs, where kids can learn in the workplace—learn not just specific job skills, but the kind of "soft skills," like getting to work on time and getting along with a team, that are crucial for career success. "It's about having mentors and having workplace-based education," he says. "Time and again I've seen examples of this kind of program working."

Ah, but how do we get there from here? With better public policy, hopefully, but also by making better individual decisions. "Historically markets have been able to handle these things," says Vedder, "and I think eventually markets will handle this one. If it doesn't improve soon, people are going to wake up and ask, 'Why am I going to college?'?"