My friend Jake Novak wrote a guest piece on CNBC the other day about the inexorable increase in college tuitions. While I don’t want to get into the question of who is to blame – and thus avoid the left-right policy debates, since much of this readership is rather diverse – Jake had one really insightful and initially puzzling point. I quote:
“In fact, the Census Bureau found that between 1993 and 2011, the average student loan debt for Americans with a bachelor’s degree jumped by more than 82 percent, to $27,547. And guess what? All that is a good thing.”
Absurdly high – actually completely unaffordable – college tuition is a good thing? Actually, yes. There is an old story about how to boil a live frog. If you just drop the frog into a pot of boiling water, it will simply jump out (unless, as my wife wisely pointed out, you put a cover on). On the other hand, if you put the poor frog in a pot of room temperature water, and then slowly raise the heat, so that the frog becomes adjusted to each level, the frog will eventually boil to death.
Fortunately, most humans are not frogs. They have become somewhat inured to paying very high levels for college tuition, but still have their limits. Whether or not we are past the point where we boil is open for debate. Many families appear to have taken on such a burden that they are, for all intents and purposes, bankrupt, except for the minor fact that student loans generally are not discharged in bankruptcy. Jake’s argument is that the absurdly high cost is pushing people to actually question the temperature of the water, which will eventually lead to and strengthen alternatives, whether lower-cost colleges, reduction in college in general, or alternative online training like edX and StraighterLine.
Jake’s logic reminds me of an episode from the classic 1960s TV series Star Trek. In one episode, the starship Enterprise, exploring the galaxy, comes across a pair of planets that have been at war for a very long time, centuries, if I recall correctly. But aware of the wasteful and destructive power of war, as well as the economic drain, the two planets come to a simple agreement. They will wage war by computer simulation. Whoever is in an area hit by a simulated missile will report to a termination station for painless dispatch. It is clean, bloodless, far less expensive… and dehumanizing. Unfortunately, the Enterprise gets caught in a simulated missile attack, and the planetary authorities insist that all of the crew members report to the extermination stations. Of course, they refuse, leading the planet leaders to insist they must, for, if they do not, real war will return with all its destruction and cost. The captain of the starship responds that, indeed, that is exactly the point. The true horror of war is not the economic cost or the shattered buildings, but the loss of life itself. Without the horror of blood, injuries, broken bodies, and, yes, destroyed cities, one can become inured to war. It takes the horror of war to learn how necessary it is to stop it.
Jake’s point is that tuition has risen to the level where we finally see the “horror of war,” and may finally be motivated to stop it.