Looking ahead at the next bubble to burst: higher education. Costs keep going up at traditional four-year colleges, in part because—with the notable exception of some Christian colleges and a few others that are student-oriented—professors do not make teaching their prime activity.
Examples are numerous. Here's one: This past year the Center for College Affordability and Productivity (CCAP) released a study showing that 80 percent of the faculty of the University of Texas at Austin receive full-time pay for teaching an average of 63 students per year, the equivalent of three classes per year of 21 students each.
The joke used to be that tenured professors with too much time on their hands sold real estate on the side, but this past year a New Jersey physics professor went to extremes. Police arrested him, along with a distinguished former president of the University of New Mexico, for allegedly running an online prostitution ring.
Most professors, of course, spend time in other pursuits. The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy in North Carolina recently asked whether an English professor who teaches Shakespeare will advance his career more by (1) Closely rereading the major plays of Shakespeare and their most important critiques, reading about Elizabethan history, preparing for lectures, and correcting written grammar when grading papers, or (2) Writing the one-millionth academic article on Shakespeare, "with an emphasis on cross-dressing, food, or some other obscure topic."
The answer: Number 2. And thus taxpayers spend thousands of dollars to subsidize conference papers that perhaps half a dozen people read, out of obligation. If you have a free half hour, visit the Postmodernism Generator (elsewhere.org/pomo) and make up amusing titles of the kind that fill research journals and allow professors to pretend that they are productive. Examples include "The semiotic paradigm of context in the works of Madonna" or "The capitalist paradigm of expression in the works of Fellini."
While students write poorly, professors prattle instead of teach. Meanwhile, parents pay tuition because it's socially the thing to do—and they've also bought the talk that college graduates earn much more than non-graduates. That's true, but Richard Vedder, an education economic expert, estimates that two-thirds of superior earning comes from the intelligence and character of the earner rather than the degree itself.
That raises another question: Do colleges help or hurt character formation? Some students work hard, particularly when they add a part-time, bill-paying job to their classes, and some colleges demand hard work, but many students have an implicit deal with many professors: Neither will work hard.
The blog Gonzo Town describes college years, with some hyperbole, as a "four-year window in which to master the fine art of drinking beer," with "cheap tickets to Division I football and basketball games and their fantastic after parties?...?a bottomless trough of free time to play computer games in your apartment, eat pizza, [consume] lots of beers, drugs, sports, parties, games, sex."
Gonzo Town has a good suggestion: "Go to community college for two years. By doing this you have the following advantages over your mostly deluded elite counterparts at a four-year university. You will have no debt, you can earn money, perhaps live at home and save money, get more or less the same curriculum the university college offers—at a fraction of the cost." Drawbacks, though, include fewer parties, and "you have to put up with your parents for a while longer."
Some students can then transfer to a college, but Gonzo Town also offers a second option: "Learn a trade and become a 'skilled worker.' Here is a truly revolutionary concept, so radical in fact, the entire U.S. and European modern economies were built upon it. Question: Who earns more than a lawyer, a resident physician, or most company directors? Answer: a plumber."
I'm not at all suggesting that those called to be lawyers, doctors, professors, etc., should not go to college. I am suggesting that work as an electrician, landscaper, or X-ray technician, or in hundreds of other occupations that don't require a four-year college degree, also glorifies God and should be honored by all of us. Many high-school graduates should spend their time that way instead of incurring huge loans for the opportunity to be unemployed and resentful.