The Chronicle Review

Beware Higher-Ed Doomsayers

Sam Kalda for The Chronicle Review

October 06, 2014

As college presidents, we regularly hear dire warnings about higher education from parents, donors, trustees, public officials, family, friends, even total strangers. Sometimes the comments take the form of panicked accusation: "If colleges don’t do something about mounting student debt, there’s going to be another economic meltdown." Other times it gets personal: "If Lewis & Clark and Northwestern don’t replace small seminars with MOOCs, they might cease to exist."

And almost daily, people send us links to articles in the popular and financial media, with purportedly authoritative claims like this one from Business Insider: "We have now reached a tipping point. The ROI of education has diminished for all and become negative for many." That’s "return on investment," a phrase that evokes its own share of quaking.

One of us has spent much of his scholarly career studying the economics of higher education, the other the sociology of fear-mongering. We are not sure which is more disappointing: that these higher-education scares come and go, leaving mass confusion, or that their lessons are never learned by would-be prognosticators. While history suggests that those who forecast trends in income growth and distribution, technology, and health care tend to be overly optimistic about the course of change, "education experts" lean toward unjustified pessimism.

For more than a century, there have been predictions about the impending demise of higher education; they have all proved wrong. Around 1900, David Starr Jordan, founding president of Stanford University, predicted that liberal-arts colleges were not long for this world. The Depression sparked warnings that higher education was headed toward financial ruin. Many of us today applaud the GI Bill's democratization of a college education, but at the time, that development was seen by some critics as a death knell for excellence. The doom prophets of that era were followed by the proclaimers of demographic devastation wrought by the large baby-boom generation, and then by the baby bust.

Anyone who thinks social scientists are lousy at prediction should review the track record of education pundits. In comparison, our scholarly crystal balls are spotless.

Latter-day alarmists are unlikely to fare any better than their predecessors. Though college debt is something to monitor, and there are indeed students facing mountains of debt without good job prospects, facts tell a different story. The vast majority of students graduate with relatively modest loans—under $30,000, on average—and almost one-third leave college with no debt at all. Meanwhile the college premium—the ratio of earnings by college graduates to those by high-school graduates—is at or near a record level. A recently published article in Science by the MIT economist David Autor summarized the evidence: "The economic payoff to college education rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was barely affected by the Great Recession starting in 2007." That was not limited to the United States but was also the case across a large number of developed countries.

Hasn’t the rapid growth in tuition affected the net return to college graduates? Autor considers the estimated difference in lifetime earnings for college versus high-school graduates, subtracts the tuition paid by college students, and still finds that for students who entered the labor market between 1965 and 2008, the net present value of a college degree relative to a high-school diploma has roughly tripled. Such facts represent an inconvenient truth for those proclaiming the end of a higher-education bubble that is reminiscent of the spectacular bust of the tulip market in 17th-century Holland.

But isn’t it true, as the headlines scream, that student-loan debt exceeds $1-trillion, even higher than credit-card debt? It is. Student debt is larger than the GDP of Indonesia, the world’s fourth-most-populated country! Sounds impressive.

So what?

One might ask what the economic output of Indonesia has to do with college debt. Nothing. And credit-card debt is an equally misguided comparison, since most of it comes from decisions about consumption, while college debt arises from an investment decision—typically the single best financial decision of a lifetime. The empirical evidence suggests that the biggest challenge with student loans is that many students, no doubt scared by the headlines, don’t take out enough of them given the financial return on college investments.

And what about the frequent depictions of online learning as "a seismic shift" (The New York Times) and "historic transformation" (The Wall Street Journal) that will result in at least some of higher education experiencing the fate "of Borders, Kodak, and Blockbuster" (Educause Review)?

The MOOC monster is turning out to be the higher-education equivalent of the superpredators of the 1990s, those mythical young people whom pundits said would destroy urban life. "America’s beleaguered cities are about to be victimized by a paradigm shattering wave of ultraviolent, morally vacuous young people," William Bennett, a former secretary of education, and his co-authors forecast in a book in 1996. Never mind that youth crime rates were falling in the mid-1990s and would fall more in the years that followed. In the same way, today the death of residential colleges is being forecast at a time when demand for education at selective private and public colleges continues to grow, and despite projections by the National Center for Education Statistics showing postsecondary enrollments growing substantially through 2021.

Threats to higher education get blown out of proportion by similar categories of actors, with similar motives and tactics, as in other scares. Individuals and organizations who stand to profit financially or politically promote them—in large measure, the same way that discount stores make their profit—through volume. Repeat something often enough, and it begins to seem true.

But volume alone doesn’t explain how scares are sold. It is important to understand, as well, the narrative techniques deployed by fear-mongers—the two most ubiquitous being the christening of isolated incidents as trends, and misdirection.

Examples of the former abound in stories about student debt: heart-wrenching accounts of college grads left impoverished and irate, regretting they ever set foot on campus. While we do not doubt that such people exist, the data suggest they are rare—fewer than 1 percent of undergraduates, for example, leave with debts of $100,000 or above. Making these accounts even harder to believe are metrics showing that student-loan-default rates are declining, and that student-debt levels are rising fastest among graduate and professional-school students—those who are best positioned to manage them. Those who do have high levels of debt report a range of emotional and practical reactions, which are captured in alarmist news stories.

A few years back, a Portland newspaper reported the grim story of a graduate of Lewis & Clark Law School who found herself on food stamps. More than $120,000 in debt and unable to get a job, she was vexed by incessant phone calls from creditors. After the article appeared, however, the alumna contacted administrators at the school, resenting the way her story had been told and used. She was off food stamps and in a judicial-clerk position, she explained. Although she was still struggling to make her student-loan payments, she was proud of her legal education and appreciated her law-school experience. Flash forward, and today she is gainfully employed as a practicing lawyer.

The term "misdirection" comes from conjuring. In making a coin disappear from his left hand, the magician leads the audience to look at his right hand. Breathless stories about the wonders of MOOCs for educating the masses similarly misdirect attention away from real factors that limit students’ access and success in college, such as dwindling public support for higher education, the persistent link between college preparedness and family income, and much more.

Why do the doomsayers exist? For one, it is common for each generation to think it is alive at the single most pivotal time in history. Surely we sit at a precipice, with the fate of everything, including higher education, in our hands in a way unknown to previous generations. Right? Doubtful, history suggests. A healthy skepticism about a world always on the verge of major change might be a useful antidote against panic.

Second, it turns out to be really difficult to predict the future. Most previous higher-education doomsayers were well intentioned and thoughtful, but that didn’t help them get it right. The world is complex, and those who merely extrapolate current trends into the future will get them largely wrong.

Finally, as we noted, many "objective" observers are anything but. Often they have a vested interest in getting us to worry. And it works. We read their articles and books, support them in elections, buy their consulting services, or donate to their causes.

Unfounded predictions of doom can become self-fulfilling prophecies if taken seriously and acted upon. Our sector must apply some of our vaunted critical thinking to the claims of self-interested scare-mongers all too eager to get us to adopt new models. If we do not, over time we will find our colleges with few outstanding professors who have a passion for teaching and shrunken research budgets with which to pursue new knowledge. The residential-college experience and the core commitment to quality that have made American higher education the leader in the world are too valuable to allow that to come to pass.

Barry Glassner is president and a professor of sociology at Lewis & Clark College. Morton Schapiro is president and a professor of economics at Northwestern University.