Going into the 2014 (and maybe the 2016) campaign, Scott Walker may have an even more potent issue than Act 10: his tuition freeze.
Last month, Walker called for extending the freeze at the University of Wisconsin System by two years. That freeze will be on top of the two-year tuition freeze in the current budget that was imposed after the UW system was found sitting atop a massive slush fund. The latest freeze comes as UW officials report they will have more than $1 billion left over after this fiscal year.
But more important, Walker’s freeze comes even as a student debt crisis is exploding. Nationally, student debt now exceeds $1 trillion and there is growing evidence that the higher education bubble may be about to burst.
With striking parallels to the housing bubble of the last decade, the cost of a college degree has soared by 439% since 1982, even as the value of that degree is increasingly questionable. A generation of graduates is emerging from higher education carrying a crushing debt burden, but without the skills or job prospects that had once been taken for granted.
Unless relief of some sort is provided, the problem will haunt the middle class for decades to come; and that is what makes Walker’s freeze so politically potent.
While the left will focus on adjustments to student loans, Walker’s move puts the focus directly on the underlying cost of higher education. Rather than providing more cheap credit, Walker’s move suggests that the underlying crisis runs deeper: the collapse of the value of higher education at a time of exploding costs and debt.
Over the last few decades, the cost of a college education rose at four times the rate of inflation and dramatically outstripped the rise of medical costs and even home prices. By 2016, the cost of a college degree will have doubled in just 15 years. At the same time, student debt also skyrocketed. Ninety-four percent of students now borrow to pay for their education – up from 45% as recently as 1993. Student debt now exceeds the nation’s total credit card and auto loan debt.
For some middle class families, sending a child to a private university is like buying a BMW very year… and driving it off a cliff. If the education is financed through student loans, paying for college is like buying a Lamborghini on credit.
Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that the rising cost of college was reflected in greater learning. As a recent study found:
45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during their first two years of college.
36 percent of student “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning over four years of college.”
So where did the money go? Much of its went to fund the Great Collegiate Bloat: an academic spending binge that included Ozymandian building projects, massive slush funds like the one at UW, bloated programs of academic and ideological frivolity, and the proliferation of administrators of dubious value (many of them in burgeoning diversity industry).
As Heather Mac Donald noted, even as the University of California was being forced to cut back on many of its core programs, one of its campuses nevertheless chose to create a new full-time “vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion.” As she notes, this was on top of “the Chancellor’s Diversity Office, the associate vice chancellor for faculty equity, the assistant vice chancellor for diversity, the faculty equity advisors, the graduate diversity coordinators, the staff diversity liaison, the undergraduate student diversity liaison, the graduate student diversity liaison, the chief diversity officer, the director of development for diversity initiatives, the Office of Academic Diversity and Equal Opportunity, the Committee on Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation Issues, the Committee on the Status of Women, the Campus Council on Climate, Culture and Inclusion, the Diversity Council, and the directors of the Cross-Cultural Center, the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Resource Center, and the Women’s Center.”
This was not unfortunately, unusual. Between 1975 and 2005, the number of full-time faculty in higher education rose by 51%. But the number of administrators rose by 85% and the number of “other professionals” by 240%.
Up until very recently, consumers were willing to pay the ever-escalating price for that coveted credential, so that it hardly mattered what was taught or whether students learned much of anything at all -- as long as the process ended with the conferring of the diploma. That degree represented entrée into the respectable middle class, exemption from work that involves getting dirty, and access to attractive members of the opposite sex.
But that economic model no longer works for many students, who realized belatedly that they had placed themselves in a financial stranglehold for unmarketable degrees.
While the average student debt load rose 24% in the last decade, average wages for graduates aged 25-34 fell by 15%. In 2011 53% of college graduates under 25 were unemployed or unemployed. Many of those who found jobs discovered that their career choices were dictated by their mortgage-like monthly loan payments; while others found that starting life with six-figure obligations makes them unmarriageable.
Thus, higher education has all the markers of a classic bubble: rapidly escalating costs, irrational exuberance, and massive debt confronted by collapsing values.
By freezing tuition, Scott Walker has, in effect, said: Stop.
That move should resonate with strapped middle class parents, while giving Walker yet another compelling narrative on an issue already that is growing ever larger on the public’s radar screen.