Over the past few months, hundreds of newspapers, blogs, and commentators have asked whether college is the next bubble. Most come to the same answer: Maybe.
What school are you going to? Who's paying? What's your degree? How's the economy? For some, higher education is indeed a bubble, in the sense that the benefits will never exceed the costs. For others -- maybe most -- it's still a worthwhile investment.
Those with a college degree outearn those with only a high school diploma by a long shot. In 2009, the average wage of a college grad was about double those who only finished high school. Since the early 1990s, college grads have seen their real (inflation adjusted) incomes stay roughly flat, while the high-school-only group has seen a decline of about 10%. It pays to have a college education. No doubt about it.
However, the entry price for that education is exploding. Consider how fast the tuition has outstripped the income growth of college grads:
Source: Federal Reserve; Department of Labor.
Since 1991, tuition -- measured by the Department of Labor's "tuition and school fees" component of the Consumer Price Index -- has increased more than threefold, while median wages for those with a college degree have increased just 70%. (Both measures are nominal, or not adjusted for inflation.) Importantly, the cost of obtaining a degree has grown faster than the cost of not having one.
As others have pointed out, tuition has grown faster than what many consider the most out-of-control strain on consumer finances: health-care costs. Tuition has actually increased at a comparable clip to last decade's bubble poster child, housing.
Source: Department of Labor; Case-Shiller National Home Index.
What's going on here? Hedge fund manager Peter Thiel offered his explanation earlier this year:
A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed. Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It's like telling the world there's no Santa Claus.
But is that really the whole explanation? Americans do intensely believe in education. Unfortunately, for some that belief is justified, yet for others it is not.
During the dot-com bubble, the intrinsic value of a company was the same, regardless of the investor. It didn't matter whether Warren Buffett overpaid for a worthless shell company, or if a donkey did. They both lost equally.
Education isn't like that. The value one person receives from it is vastly different from another, even when both pay the same price, or even attend the same school.
Here, Slate columnist Annie Lowrey makes a great point:
It could be that Thiel is right, that college students, en masse, are overpaying for their educations. But it seems more likely that some college students attending certain types of schools are overpaying. If you want to be an aerospace engineer and have the chops to get into Caltech, the quality of the education, contacts, and fellow students on offer might really be worth $200,000 to you. A diploma from the school practically guarantees a good salary. That is not true for many other institutions -- particularly not for online, for-profit schools, the worst of which egregiously overcharge for worthless degrees.
To extend that point, we have to talk about the type of jobs toward which the economy is shifting. Tomorrow's jobs aren't at General Motors
The supply of colleges, however, has by and large not kept up with rising demand, with one notable exception: online, for-profit institutions, such as those offered by Apollo Group
As Lowrey notes, these colleges are often woefully inadequate, particularly given the price. My favorite example: The Government Accountability Office highlighted a for-profit college that offered a massage therapy degree for $14,000, when a local community college offered the same program for $520. Paying tens of thousands of dollars for an education is still well worth it if you're receiving a degree that focuses on where tomorrow's jobs will be. Many degrees, however, do not -- yet they often cost the same price.
This is where Thiel's argument of intense belief comes in. If there is a bubble, it's in the idea that simply going to college is what matters -- not what degree you get, or how you'll apply it in the real world.
What do you think?
Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Follow him on Twitter @TMFHousel. General Motors and Google are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. The Fool owns shares of Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.