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The goal of education is to develop a capacity for productive action. If there isn’t going to be an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills acquired, it makes more sense to spend the time, effort and money doing something that is more likely to achieve something worthwhile. Learning just to be consuming time or to attain a particular degree as a goal consumes resources needlessly. That kind of learning is not only a waste of time, it is counterproductive to one’s own well-being; it consumes one’s life with distractions which are promoted by the spin doctors as being worthwhile, but worthwhile for whom? Why spend years studying something for which there is no reward, when one could have been getting rewards every day doing something which was worthwhile in the shorter run? At the end of six years of college you might have an advanced degree and be in a good position to make a good living. With the same amount of effort and ability applied to a good trade you could have a modest home and a used car paid for, own them outright and have a record of accomplishment rather than a huge debt.

The Master’s degree holder at this time would start earning at about the same level for the first year but in a few years be making more money than the tradesman. However, the break-even point on total earnings after paying off educational debts is guessed to be about ten to fifteen years out from the starting age in this mental exercise. At that time the wise tradesman would own a middle level home outright and the graduate would be just well into paying his mortgage, and would probably be moving on to something with even more status, but would be buying himself into even more debt. Twenty years out the graduate would on average be clearly moving ahead but that assumes the job markets for graduates and tradesmen remain as they are. There are no guarantees on any of this, but it seems that the person who fully owns their home and other possessions and has some money in reserve can weather adversity, and one who is in debt to others will have trouble if there is some serious social blip. Going to college puts one into a debtor role for many years, but buying and paying off a very cheap house, and then trading up in a few years keeps one in a safe position at all times.

Here in the state of Oregon there is a political movement called the 40/40/20 plan. The idea is to educate Oregonians to where 40% have college degrees, 40% have associate degrees, and the remaining 20% have high school degrees. Those numbers roll trippingly off the tongue and the implication is that there will be a demand for all of those educated people. The reasoning is that at present educated people make more money and therefore we should educate people to a higher degree. But that assumption may not be accurate, and it does appear that most jobs are already going to people who are over-educated for the jobs they are called on to do. There are reported to be large numbers of highly educated people who have been forced by unemployment to move back in with their parents. That is a disaster because it destroys those people’s morale for independent responsibility and the goal of education is to enable effective independent action.

The beginning of this post was about education developing a capacity for successful, productive action and clearly in the past it has served that purpose reasonably well, but the present overabundance of over-educated people is creating an education bubble. We have seen various bubbles in the recent past: the dot-com bubble burst of 2001 and then the housing bubble burst of 2006 and is appears that we could have “an education bubble burst in the teens.” I hope I am wrong about this line of education-bubble thinking but I am quite confident I am right about owning where you live and not being in debt to anyone.

We may be looking at an education-bubble but not seeing it start to burst?