The biggest consumer ripoff in America today is a college education.
Since 1981, tuition and fees have increased sixfold, while the consumer price index has risen just 250 percent. The rise in college costs has been especially fast in the last decade, and has reached heights that place enormous strain on middle class families.
According to the College Board, tuition at public universities this academic year averages $7,605. At private schools, it averages $27,293. Room and board averages an additional $8,535 at public universities and $9,700 at private schools.
There are noneconomic benefits to attending college. But the principal justification offered for its high cost has been greater lifetime earnings.
"Over a lifetime, the gap in earning potential between a high school diploma and a bachelor of arts is more than $800,000. In other words, whatever sacrifices you and your child make for a college education in the short term are more than repaid in the long term," the College Board says on its website.
Mary Pilon of The Wall Street Journal discovered that figure was taken from a footnote in a 2007 report by a Skidmore College economics professor, and it distorted her research. Sandy Baum said a more reasonable estimate for the difference in lifetime earnings is $450,000. Dr. Mark Schneider of the American Institutes of Research said the actual difference is about $280,000.
The average, whatever it is, is virtually meaningless. If you have a degree in physics or engineering, you're almost certain to earn a great deal more than someone who stocks shelves at Wal Mart. But if your degree is in sociology or ethnic studies, you probably won't earn as much as a plumber or an electrician.
About 70 percent of high school graduates start college, but barely half of those earn a degree within the traditional four years. And many who do get a degree can find only those jobs for which college is not necessary.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the 49.37 million college graduates who had jobs in 2008, 17.4 million were working in occupations requiring less than a bachelor's degree. For instance, 29.8 percent of flight attendants had college degrees. So did 24.5 percent of retail salespersons, 17.4 percent of bellhops, 16.6 percent of secretaries,15.2 percent of taxi drivers and 13.9 percent of mail carriers.
The proportion of Americans who attend college has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. But, according to Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, those representing 60 percent of the increase since 1992 worked in low-skill jobs, some of which don't even require a high school diploma.
This is "the single most scandalous statistic in higher education," Dr. Vedder said.
What makes it more scandalous is that so many young people have gone deeply into debt to obtain degrees of little economic value. Student loan debt, $850 billion this year, now exceeds credit card debt. According to the Project on Student Debt, more than two thirds of students who were graduated in 2008 were in debt.
The New York Times profiled in May the plight of Cortney Munna, who racked up nearly $100,000 in loans while earning a degree in religious and women's studies at New York University. She works as a photographer's assistant for $22 an hour.
What makes Ms. Munna's plight worse is that it is virtually impossible to discharge student loan debts in bankruptcy.
The dropout rate and the proportion of college freshmen who must take remedial courses -- about one third -- suggest that about half of the students being admitted to college don't belong there. And many who are capable of doing college work are taking garbage courses.
The scam exists for the benefit of college teachers and administrators who make a comfortable living ripping off the gullible. If only people capable of doing college work were admitted to college, and only courses with academic value were offered, there would be fewer colleges and far fewer faculty.
But the scam may be nearing its end. Since 1978, college tuition rose nearly twice as fast as housing prices did before the bust.
"The student loan crisis looks remarkably like the subprime mortgage crisis," according to Laura Rowley of Yahoo Finance.
Peter Wood of the National Association of Scholars put it this way: "The price of attaining a college degree has skyrocketed while the rewards for attaining a college degree have slumped. If enough people notice this ... the bubble will burst."
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The (Toledo) Blade ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1476).