In Two big questions for economists today (2015) I reported that, coming away from an economics convention, one of the big questions was “Can higher education make a person more productive at his or her ultimate job?” It sure seems as though the answer for American higher education is “oftentimes no”. The New York Times today is focusing on the evils of the financial institutions profiting from Americans’ blind faith in the university system, e.g., with “Loans ‘Designed to Fail’: States Say Navient Preyed on Students”. I think the details are more interesting and the Times provides that with a separate story: “Voices of Navient’s Borrowers: ‘The Biggest Mistake of My Life’”
One 36-year-old attended two public schools in Florida and came out with what is now $83,300 in debt. She got a “B.A. in maritime history.” In the old days a young person from a wealthy family might have enjoyed four years studying maritime history (tuition would have been about $500 per year back then too). Somehow today this same experience is being marketed to the non-rich. For me the interesting question is why public universities don’t put more effort into online degrees in subjects such as these. Georgia Tech can deliver an online master’s in CS for $7,000. If learning maritime history is mostly reading books that are available in libraries or are no longer within copyright, why couldn’t a degree in the subject be earned by downloading a reading list and writing some papers? If the mission of a public university is to educate the public at a reasonable cost, why didn’t they offer this kind of degree online starting in the 1980s when personal computers became popular or the 1990s with the rise of the Web?
[Separately, if you’re a young economist and don’t like this subject, let me suggest looking at the effects of the change to no-fault divorce in the 1970s (history) and the 1990s switch to child support guidelines (in many states, these give a higher spending power to the person who has sex with a high-income partner than to the person who marries a medium-income partner; they also make it more lucrative to have sex with a high-income person than to go to college and work). See “Litigation, Alimony, and Child Support in the U.S. Economy” for an example. A group at MIT led by David Autor, for example, was referenced in the New York Times for their 2016 look at how children turn out depending on whether they are raised in two-parent or single-parent households. They didn’t have to compete for attention with a classic paper from 1960 because the government didn’t encourage single-parent households back then and there weren’t enough of them.]