One of the more frustrating debates in modern America is the one over student debt. It seems like the mere mention of the subject turns smart people into blithering idiots. The president has come forth with a “new” proposal to address student debt. The gist of it is a laundry list of government created metrics that schools will have to post for public view. The assertion is that this will “empower” students to make better choices, thus avoiding debt for worthless degrees.
That sounds nice and maybe would impact student choices at the fringes. Without proof that students are making mistakes because they lack this knowledge, it falls into the realm of wishful thinking. I think it is easy to prove that this information is easily attainable. Thirty years ago when I was a student we were regularly given information about future earnings, job prospects and debt consequences. Only willful ignorance kept English majors from knowing they were not going to get a six figure job out of college.
Today, the Interwebs makes it easy to know just about anything about everything. Not only can you easily learn what you can expect in salary with a given degree, you can break it down by region and get some sense of lifetime earnings. Granted, that takes effort and it people have a way of gaslighting themselves on these things. But, they would do that with whatever the government is going to provide. You cannot get around the fact that white people have to be brainwashed into believing college is a requirement.
Now, it would be nice, if like calorie counts on menus, the realities of college were printed on the front of the brochure. Everyone loves convenience. Like those calorie counts, however, there’s no evidence it changes behavior. That’s what makes this post from the former Half Sigma blogger so weird. His enthusiasm is misplaced. His casting it as a “conservative idea” is the sort of sloppy thinking we see on the Left. There are plenty of dumb ideas with the conservative stamp of approval.
Yuval Levin offers some good questions in this posting at NRO. He does not mention it, but government standards turn the regulated into rent seekers. It is axiomatic. In this case, the universities suddenly need to bribe politicians to get the standards they want. As Levin points out, it is not clear what should be measured and by whom. That opens up the door to all sorts of shenanigans. The best way to ensure rational markets is to eliminate the number of intermediaries between the supplier and consumer. Another government agency to set standards is just going to make this more dishonest that they are now.
That’s the fundamental problem with higher education debates. Everyone is trapped in the old paradigm of government financing. No one ever asks why tuition has risen at five and six times inflation since the government got into the student loan business. The two markets that have seen the greatest amount of government intervention are higher ed and health care. In both prices have rocketed up, basic service levels have declined and massive amounts of debt have been accumulated. That’s called a clue