On education: the problems

$1.5 trillion dollars. Take a million, a million and a half times. That’s how much student debt there is in the US today. Most of it are government loans, with under $10 billion in private debt. And none of it is dischargeable. For those who don’t know, that means no matter how many times you declare bankruptcy, this debt will stay with you like that a wart on your foot that won’t go away no matter how many times you douse it with acid, or freeze it to near-absolute zero. My assertion is that the whole education crisis in the US is due to this fact. In this post I will discuss how we got there, and in the next post my attempt at finding a solution.

Over the last half century, there has been, and continues to be, a concerted to push to get as many people to college as possible. It doesn’t matter if you want to or not, if you have the aptitude or not, everyone has to go to college. But college isn’t free (despite what Bernie would like to believe, someone, or rather lots of someones, has to put up the physical and human resources to run it), and ultimately the students or their guarantors (and tax payers) have to pay for it. Once upon a time it wasn’t difficult to work part-time flipping burgers to pay for your education, but in today’s environment, this can only be done in state schools, and you will probably still need to take out loans. The main solution to this problem was pretty obvious, the student loan. But since education was seen to be a national priority to take the country into the 21st century, the government said, “we got this. Anyone who wants to go to college is pretty much guaranteed to be able to get a loan. Don’t worry about the fine print though.”

A related problem is students choosing to go for majors that have very low likelihood of helping them get a well-paying job. You end up being saddled with tremendous debt, and working as the almost proverbial barista at your local over-priced coffee chain of choice.

Let’s talk about supply and demand for a second. I am not a fan of economists. As Reagan said, they are people who see something work in practice and wonder if it would work in theory. But the one thing they did get right beyond a shadow of a doubt is supply and demand. Demand for college education kept going up and up, and when that happens, the supplier can start charging more and more. With anyone being able to get a loan, and the government guaranteeing it, there is essentially no risk for schools. That’s what endless money printing does for you. 9% compounded annual inflation in tuition over the last 30 years or so.

What about the little nugget of college textbooks? A hundred dollars and up per book, at least one book per class, four classes on average a semester means at least $5,000 just for textbooks during college education. Book publishers gotta eat (lobster, Kobe beef and caviar, apparently). College professors are entrusted to impart supposed life skills to their students, but they can’t come up with their own material, they have to cobble it together from a bunch of different textbooks.

The end result is that college graduates are saddled with extensive debt, $1,000 a month not being unusual. As a new entrant to the workforce, this is a huge drag on your ability to start living your life independently, causing the epidemic of young people living with their parents much later than they otherwise would have.

Finally, there is the issue of school administrators, and all other non-teaching staff. While teaching staff has grown in relative lockstep with the number of students going to college, non-teaching staff has seen exponential growth. And that staff often gets paid much more than the teachers.

That was the financial problem. But now there is also another, possibly more serious problem: education in the US is terrible. I am pretty certain that in the mid-20th century, it was on par with European education. But now it is nowhere near close. Given that I have been living in the US for the last 20 years, European education could also have deteriorated for all I know, but I doubt it, and here’s why: there is no money in education in Europe. European universities are government run, and tuition is essentially symbolic. American Universities make more money off of their students the longer they stay in school. They often give you a hard time transferring credits because transferred credit is lost revenue. So what is a good way to keep you in school longer? Teach you less! Material keeps drifting up and up, meaning you get exposed to it at a progressively later age. As a result, if you want to delay teaching material in college, you also have to delay teaching the material before that. High school students get essentially no useful skills unless they are in advanced placement classes.

And don’t get me started on the idiocy of Common Core. From what I’ve seen, Common Core tries to tell teachers how to teach students to solve problems in a very specific way. But the hallmark of a good teacher is the ability to find the right approach for a student, not one size fits all. A heuristic that works for one student will be useless for another.

Another victim of the law of unintended consequences is No Child Left Behind. I don’t even know if the policy is still in force, but in the current climate of collectivism I can’t imagine it’s not being followed. It is terrible. If a child did not pick up the skills necessary to advance to the next grade, why promote them? So they don’t feel bad? How bad do you think they will feel when they keep lagging all the other students more and more over time? Social promotion does nothing except let administrators feel good about themselves for not hurting the child’s feelings.

So these are the major issues with US education as I see them. In the next post I will put forth my ideas on how to solve them.

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