As I note in Monday’s Huffington Post column, there’s increasingly little difference in the flavour of progressivism offered by Democrats in the States and the two left-wing parties in Canada. Case in point: post-secondary education — all of the above think it should be cheaper, more popular, and easier to get into. These are some of the most consistent commandments of North American liberalism.
“Most young people will need some higher education,” said President Obama his recent State of the Union. “It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class.” But alas, he continued, these days “skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education,” so get cracking on that, Congress.
Justin Trudeau echoed Obama’s words a few days later, in a HuffPo editorial of his own.
“It’s time we took education more seriously as a driver of economic success and security right across the country,” he wrote. “A Liberal Party led by me would make it the highest national economic priority to raise our post-secondary education rate to 70 per cent of Canadians.”
Despite the fact that North America’s left-of-centre parties are overwhelmingly favoured by young voters, few partisan dogmas are more directly at odds with youth interests than this one. Much of this continent’s high youth unemployment rate — currently hovering around 13-14% in both the United States and and Canada — is, in fact, directly attributable to the consequences born from a higher education regime that’s already far too easy to enter and too simple to pay for.
Take cost. Is tuition too expensive? Undoubtedly; over the last two decades, the price of a BA has increased over 100% in Canada and the US, with the average cost of a four-year, public university degree totalling around $25,000 in Canada and $35,000 in the States. (Attend one of America’s swankier private colleges and the numbers can easily climb over 100 grand.) In both countries, yearly tuition hikes (around 5-6% annually) have become an entrenched market tradition that defies ordinary inflation rates. Since the 1990s, each subsequent generation of students has been screwed exponentially worse than the one before it.
But no worry! Student loans have never been easier to get. Canada’s various levels of government spend somewhere around $7 billion annually lending out cash to help students pay for their education, while in America the number is closer to $200 billion. And that’s not counting the billions more generously loaned by private firms.
All these giant loans to pay for giant education bills mean students have never been in more debt (today’s grads carry an average load of around $25,000 in both countries, to be precise), but hey, at least everyone’s going to college! Universities can barely keep up with the inflow, in fact — cranes, tarps, and construction crews are now as ubiquitous as backpacks and bongs on campuses across this continent as endless new classrooms, halls, dorms, offices, and annexes sprout from the soil just to make room for the ever-increasing parade of freshmen. Despite the recession, both Canadians and Americans are enrolling and graduating from college at rates unprecedented since the end of the Second World War.
A continent where “everyone” has a chance to get a high-quality university education isn’t some far-off fantasy, in other words — it’s as close to reality as we’ve ever known.
And the consequences have been profound. As we’re endlessly informed by sob-story magazine features and heart-wrenching newspaper exposés in publications on both sides of the border, today’s precocious alumni routinely enter the job market only to find that their expensive degrees have been rendered near-useless by virtue of over-production. Thanks to inflation, the four-year BA, it’s sometimes snidely said, is the “new high school diploma.” It affirms a minimal standard of competence in filling out student loan forms, but little else. Everyone’s got one, so they’re no longer cool.
University degrees are the last social good which the left believes can be overproduced and mass distributed without provoking the sort of severe economic dysfunctions that usually follow aggressive government meddling with the natural forces of supply and demand. Some critics have drawn analogies to the sub-prime mortgage bubble, and that sounds about right.
Politicians want more students to go to college, so they subsidize loans. Private sector loan sharks see profit to be made, and start pushing as well. Degree-granting institutions lick their chops at this mad rush for their product, and raise prices while lowering entrance standards. Cash-strapped legislatures then cut post-secondary funding because they think booming colleges should be able to pay their own way. But the colleges are now too big and luxurious and decadent and over-staffed, so they hike tuition even more. And they also need more students by the way, which is good, because the politicians still think so too. And so do mom and dad and the rest of the broader culture, who have been fed a steady diet of platitudes that college is where good kids go to get good jobs.
It’s a bubble of naiveté and greed and ignorance and it will obviously have to burst at some point, just as the real estate one did. And when it does, guess who’s gonna bear the brunt?
It would be nice if the parties of the left — the parties young voters consistently help put in power — could at least acknowledge this looming crisis of their own making. Instead, they plunge ever-deeper into denial.