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The Infilaw bust out and American higher education

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I have a piece in the September issue of the Atlantic on for-profit law schools, and what their predatory behavior has to tell us about the increasingly market-driven structure of higher ed in America generally. (While it’s true that the financing of higher education in this country has become a particularly distorted and dysfunctional market, it’s also important to keep in mind that advocates of market solutions to social problems are especially prone to no true Scotsman fallacies).

Across the ideological spectrum, it is almost universally assumed that more and better education will function as a panacea for un- and underemployment, slow economic growth, and increasingly radical wealth disparities. Hence the broad support among liberal, moderate, and conservative politicians alike for the goal of constantly increasing the percentage of the American population that goes to college. Behind that support seems to lurk an inchoate faith—one that is absurd when articulated clearly, which is why it almost never is—that higher education will eventually make everyone middle-class.

That faith helps explain many economic features of American higher education, such as the extraordinarily inefficient structure of federal loan programs, the non-dischargeable status of student debt, and the way in which rising college costs that have far outstripped inflation for decades are treated as a law of nature rather than a product of political choices.

This past April, the Congressional Budget Office projected that Americans will incur nearly $1.3 trillion in student debt over the next 11 years. That figure is in addition to the more than $1 trillion of such debt that remains outstanding today. This is the inevitable consequence of an interwoven set of largely unchallenged assumptions: the idea that a college degree—and increasingly, thanks to rampant credential inflation, a graduate degree—should serve as a kind of minimum entrance requirement into the shrinking American middle class; the widespread belief that educational debt is always “good” debt; the related belief that the higher earnings of degreed workers are wholly caused by higher education, as opposed to being significantly correlated with it; the presumption that unlimited federal loan money should finance these beliefs; and the quiet acceptance of the reckless spending within the academy that all this money has entailed. These assumptions enabled InfiLaw’s lucrative foray into the world of for-profit education. But they have just as surely shaped the behavior of nonprofit colleges and universities.

The result is a system that has produced an entire generation of overcredentialed, underemployed, and deeply indebted young people. Just as the law school reform movement has exposed the extent to which law schools have overpromised and underperformed, similar reform movements are calling into question the American faith in higher education in general, and all its extravagant promises regarding the supposed relationship between more (and more expensive) education and increased social mobility.

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