Could there be a college bubble?

The essence of a bubble is that you can flip an asset one more time before the bubble bursts. Most people know it will burst, but as long as prices are still rising, we might be able to fleece one more sucker. But we have to get the timing right or we might be that sucker.

But what about college? I can’t sell my degree (and there are other things that Jon Lajoie can’t do with it, but that’s neither here nor there), so I can’t flip it. But I can get rents on it. I give up $100,000 to get a degree with a present value of $300,000, and I feel peachy-keen. That’s a recipe for increased demand leading to higher tuition, sure, but could there be a bubble?

Let’s start with equilibrium so we have a counterfactual. Basic supply and demand here: higher incomes for college grads increase demand, and increased demand increases prices. In equilibrium the marginal student’s value of the degree will be equal to or greater than the opportunity cost of getting the degree.The student’s value is the benefit of cool college parties, mind/horizon expansion, reduced expected unemployment in the future, and higher expected income. Their opportunity cost is tuition, loan interest, stress from doing homework, and time not spent working. The question of going to school is different for different students; some will enjoy college more, will get more out of it, will have an easier time of it, etc. And the financial return isn’t the only relevant variable. At this point I’m thinking that maybe the current market is actually pretty sensible… we can ask questions about the sustainability of subsidies, but given everything, it’s likely that the students going to school are making the right choice, as are the ones who don’t go. Mistakes will be made, but it isn’t necessarily the case that there are systemic, wide-spread mistakes.

Now let’s think about what it might mean for the bubble to burst. First off, there would have to be a bubble: too many people paying too much to be in school; too little incentive for any individual to change their behavior. Then all at once, there is a flood away from the market, and recent grads are left holding the bag. During the bubble, I can get financing for my degree and I can reasonably expect (even if I see that there’s a bubble) that I will come out ahead, as long as I jump ship soon enough. Let’s say that during the bubble, I pay $10k to get a degree and I earn an extra $1k per year (and lets also assume, for simplicity’s sake, that we don’t have to worry about discounted values… a bird in the hand is worth one in the bush). My behavior is rational as long as I expect to keep getting that extra grand for the next 10+ years. So our bubble has a weirder time dimension than, for example, a beanie baby bubble where I can buy and sell rapidly.

Also, our bubble requires that my income is inflated compared to it’s post-bubble level. That would certainly be the case for me as an academic; if that bubble bursts, my income will drop. Will that be true of someone getting a business degree? American employers are keen to hire people with degrees, and so there’s a de facto licensure system. The assumption is that if you don’t have a degree there must be something wrong with you. As long as everyone holds this assumption then all would/could-be students will have to get a degree. But if no degree means ‘idiot’, that doesn’t mean that degree means ‘genius.’ Employers could well figure out a better vetting procedure, and students could get sick of undergoing the opportunity cost of attending school. But if this is a gradual change, then ‘bubble’ doesn’t seem like the right word. Even if the change in hiring practices is instant, the change in the labor market won’t be. If every 30 year old has a degree and suddenly degrees become unimportant, companies won’t rush out to replace them with 20 year-olds. The supply of lightly-experienced, qualified workers won’t change in the short run unless there’s a reserve army of qualified but un-credentialed labor currently in limbo as baristas.

So is there a bubble? It certainly seems like enrollments don’t reflect underlying realities. It also seems like there are profit opportunities for entrepreneurs able to improve hiring procedures; placement services could vouch for a candidate’s abilities, employers could accept non-college interns and hire from that pool, would-be students could become self-employed. I think the market is far away from equilibrium. But I’m doubtful that re-equilibration will happen rapidly. There isn’t room to “burst” a bubble, so much as there is room to avoid wasting a lot of 18-24 year-olds’ time.

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7 thoughts on “Could there be a college bubble?

  1. You seem to be assuming a homogeneity that doesn’t exist. I’m not sure it’s sensible to throw electrical engineers and sociologists into the same stewpot along with M.I.T. and Wright State University.

    • You’re right. It’s a simplifying assumption I implicitly included to save my audience reading through a half dozen of my beloved parenthetical statements. It doesn’t make a substantive change in my analysis though. It just narrows the scope somewhat.

  2. Don’t get me wrong, you’re definitely on to something. For example, I think the MBA degree may be getting close to a bubble. Also, E-learning is offering something close to entrepreneurial opportunities for organizations to make big changes in the opportunity costs paid by students. As an academic I’d like to see you extend your arguments; I have vested interests in the topic 😉

    • I also have a vested interest. I’m always tempted to use the term bubble, but I don’t think it applies widely. It is accurate to say that the market is highly distorted, but because a degree is a sunk cost (i.e. not tradable) and one that highly correlates with age and experience, any crash will only hit academics.

      Then the question is, what do we do? Presumably we’re pretty good at determining ability, teaching abstract concepts, and research. There are opportunities for us yet.

    • I didn’t read it (I will), but probably agree that apprenticeships are an excellent solution for many skills. *Guilds* may present a problem as we don’t want to encourage cartelization, but it would be one way to solve the problem of ensuring that taking on an apprentice is in the interest of the expert training that apprentice while keeping the cost of training low.

Please keep it civil

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