The Bear’s Lair: Better abolish colleges, not just college debts

President-probably-elect Joe Biden has confirmed that he intends to introduce a forgiveness program on student debts, perhaps up to $50,000 as Senator Elizabeth Warren (D.MA) has proposed. This is a direct subsidy to the relatively rich, to be paid for by suffering middle-class taxpayers. Rather than forgiving the debts of the relatively rich, let us take an axe to the college system that condemns many of them to insolvency.

Forgiving college loans is a terrible idea, a subsidy to the pampered upper-middle class from the ordinary working stiffs. After all, the largest student debts are accumulated in graduate school by budding lawyers and doctors, surely in the long run rich enough to look after themselves. The loans are a subsidy to the overstuffed U.S. college system, which was exacerbated under the George W. Bush administration in 2005 by making college loans undischargeable in bankruptcy and in 2008 by giving them government guarantees. This has resulted in an explosion in their amount outstanding, to some $1.6 trillion. However, forgiving college loans changes nothing about the underlying dynamic that has caused them to accumulate, and it encourages economically and socially perverse behavior by both the colleges and their students.

The social unfairness of forgiving college debt could be removed by combining it with a partial forgiveness of automobile debt, specifically including debts used to buy trucks used in small businesses. Auto loan debt currently totals $1.2 trillion compared to $1.6 trillion in college debt, so a partial forgiveness of both debt types could be undertaken for a similar cost to forgiveness of $50,000 in college debt. The boost to blue-collar wealth that would be caused by such a forgiveness would be an enormous boost to Trump voters – a pity that the decision is going to be made by a Joe Biden administration!

This column has previously discussed the silly idea for a debt jubilee and explained the economic damage such a jubilee would do. Clearly a partial jubilee of this type would be less damaging, but even so its incentive effects should be avoided if at all possible. In any case, it is surely clear that a jubilee of college debt would solve nothing, unless steps are taken to prevent a further accumulation of such debt. It is time therefore to take a critical look at the U.S. college system as a whole, to determine to what extent it adds value.

The U.S. college system currently absorbs 2.7% of GDP, the highest such figure in the world. Its costs have been bloated by a rise of around 500,000 in college administrators between 1997 and 2012. By definition, such people add very little value; bloating the bureaucracy with politically correct drones subtracts rather than adds to the educational experience. It is thus clear that colleges have deviated from an economically optimal path, while the educational experience has not improved (though the fun-and-games facilities on many campuses have grown more lavish). Still, as one whose education included a monthly bath, for which one had to cross a freezing open-air quadrangle and risk meeting a waspish 90-year-old Nobel prizewinner in the communal bathroom, I have to say that luxurious facilities for students add little value.

The enthusiasm that has developed since 1960 for sending 50% plus of the teenage age cohort to college has coincided with a prolonged decline in U.S. productivity growth, from 2.8% annually in 1948-73 to barely 1% annually in the last decade. I rather think this is not a coincidence. It is not simply an effect of removing the best and brightest from the workforce for four years – or longer if they can be persuaded to add graduate school to their accomplishments – that would not affect productivity data much, since it would remove both their hours and their output from the equation. The coincidence of an increase in college attendance with a sharp decline in productivity growth suggests that the aim of sending so many young people to college is itself misguided, even if a way could be found to pay for it.

At the very top of the intellectual scale, college often has a purpose, at least in principle. Pure research, top quality artistic achievement and other rarefied intellectual activities generally require years of specialized training. College is at least one mechanism by which such training can be acquired.

However, even at this level, the current college structure is suboptimal. It is generally believed that the most rarefied intellectual activities, like top-flight physical activities such as professional sports, are best carried out early in life. College systems that require students to study for a decade or more before acquiring the qualifications that allow them to practice in these fields are thus counterproductive; by the time a top student has fully qualified, he or she will be within a very few years of mental decline. It would make more sense to concentrate such people in scientific institutes, where there are no undergraduates, where they can learn and study at the greatest possible rate, so they can start making contributions as early as possible, and continue until their powers begin to decay.

After that point, they can either teach, administrate, or retrain for some other profession, perhaps more lucrative and fulfilling, where their gently declining intellectual abilities are still more than sufficient. The archetype should be Isaac Newton, who did his best theoretical work at 23, during a year’s sabbatical while the plague ravaged Cambridge, then made further academic discoveries, becoming bored with academic life, and publishing his definitive work at 45. After that point, he left academia and for the last 30 years of his life was a remarkably successful Master of the Mint, supervising the efficient production of a new silver coinage that was used for 120 years and putting Britain onto the Gold Standard.

There are also important activities that, while not especially rarefied intellectually, still need to be carried out early in life. One example is the trading desk activity ubiquitous today in finance, which requires lightning reflexes and mental acuity, both of which decay after 30 or 35. Like the scientific masters, people undertaking this activity today waste much of their 20s in university and often graduate school. Instead, they should move onto a trading floor as an assistant after leaving high school, learning on the job; this will give them an extra 5-7 years of useful trading life, rather than wasting that period in academic work for which they are often not well suited. Like the cognoscenti, they will do better to retrain in their 30s, acquiring qualifications for some job such as securities analysis in which youth is not essential.

For the great majority of people, who are neither geniuses nor traders, university does not sharply limit their working life, but it is still generally suboptimal. For one thing, skills and knowledge acquired at 20 may well be obsolete by 50, let alone 70; my own Cambridge Mathematics studies, for example, have not been the slightest use for at least a quarter-century. Even my Harvard MBA, beyond some useful basic skills my son learned at high school, gave me only a smattering of financial and factory management techniques that are now thoroughly obsolete. In today’s world, where no job lasts longer than a decade or so, everybody needs to retrain and learn new skills three or four times within a career that should extend over 50 years (because otherwise they will run out of money in retirement). A 4-year university course at 20 does not fulfil this requirement; it is simply a waste of at least three of the four years.

Educational reform should be a top U.S. priority. Elementary, middle and high school education should be speeded up and made more rigorous, so that calculus (for example) is covered at 12, when I covered it and not in the final year of high school, when my son did. Liberal arts colleges should be forced to fend for themselves in a free market; there will always be some demand for them, from the somewhat stupid children of rich, left-wing people, but it should be no more than a niche, with no public funding. Scientific research should be done in specialist institutions, which take in the brightest motivated high-school students as interns. The remainder of university education should be delivered in say four 12-month bursts, one every ten years.

With that model, the college funding problem will disappear, because college will be less ubiquitous and paid for in shorter, discrete segments. This will make the U.S. economy and its population immeasurably better off.

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)