Linda Chavez
When President Obama gives his state of the union address next week, you can count on his making a big pitch for education. No president in recent memory has failed to tout expanded educational opportunity as the panacea for all that ails us -- and Obama has been the most passionate of pitchment on the issue. In last year's speech, he said, "Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine."

But the fact is that dumping billions more in education will have little payoff and has arguably created more problems than it has solved.

The most recent issue of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, addresses one aspect of the problem: the higher-education bubble. With the mounting cost of higher education -- driven in part by the infusion of government subsidies -- many new graduates are finding that the degree they've earned is not worth the investment. At one time, a college degree was a virtual guarantor of secure, well-paying employment. Now, most college grads leave school with large debts -- more than $27,000 on average. It's money they will struggle to pay back if they're lucky enough to get a job in this weak economy.

A college degree no longer signifies that the recipient is either well-educated in the traditional sense or that he has acquired specific skills suited to the labor market. As the former president of St. John's College in Santa Fe, John Agresto, argues in his essay, "The Liberal Arts Bubble," were it not for the continued infusion of government subsidies and the influx of foreign students, the bubble might already have burst. Agresto points out that the liberal arts, once the backbone of the higher education system, has fallen into a precipitous decline.

"What was once normative -- that Jake or Suzie would go off to college and study some history, some literature, learn a second language, and perhaps major in philosophy or classics -- has not been the case for years," Agresto writes. By 2008, the number of bachelor's degrees had risen to 1.5 million Americans, but few of these degrees were in the traditional liberal arts. Barely 2 percent of BAs were awarded in history and only 3.5 percent in English literature. Agresto points out that more than a third of undergraduate degress are now earned in business, health professions and education. Colleges have become trade schools by another name -- but far more expensive ones than their for-profit counterparts.


Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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