The biggest consumer ripoff in America today -- and the next economic bubble to burst -- is higher education.
Tuition and fees at colleges and universities rose 439 percent between 1982 and 2007. Median family income rose just 147 percent during that period.
Median household income has fallen 6.7 percent since June 2009. The cost of attending the average public university rose 5.4 percent this year.
Student loan debt recently passed $1 trillion. It's now more than credit card debt. The average graduate of a four-year college owes $27,000.
College students don't get much for their money. Nearly half learn next to nothing in their first two years; a third learn almost nothing in four, according to a report authored principally by Prof. Richard Arum of New York University.
"Students who say that college has not prepared them for the real world are largely right," said Ann Neal, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. "The fundamental problem here is not debt, but a broken educational system that no longer insists on excellence."
Or even adequacy. "A college degree nowadays doesn't necessarily signal that its holder has any useful work skills," said Charlotte Allen of the Manhattan Institute.
"For decades our schools have abandoned the teaching of basic facts and foundational thinking skills, and replaced both with leftish received wisdom and stale mythologies, all the while they have anxiously monitored and puffed up students' self esteem," said classics Prof. Bruce Thornton of California State University Fresno.
It's no coincidence that the cost of college soared and its value diminished once the federal government started to "help."
Giving home loans to people who could not pay them back did them no favors and crashed our economy. It does college students no favors either to lend them money they can't repay.
More young people go to college than are capable of doing college work. Many leave without a diploma but with massive debt.
Others graduate to find there are no jobs for them. Roughly 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates since 1992 work in low-skill jobs, Prof. Richard Vedder of Ohio University discovered. In 2008, 318,000 waiters and waitresses had college degrees, as did 365,000 cashiers and 18,000 parking lot attendants.
The ostensible purpose of federal guarantees for student loans was to make college more affordable. In fact they did the opposite, by fueling the massive tuition hikes.
Colleges spent the extra money to expand their bureaucracies, increase the compensation of faculty and staff, and improve physical facilities. Tenured radicals constructed comfortable bastions from which to assail the capitalist system by mal-educating the children of capitalists.
This may have been the real purpose all along. Those who benefit most from government programs are the service providers.
We spend about $10,600 per pupil in public schools, 377 percent more, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than we spent in 1961. Yet among students who go to college, 75 percent require some remedial work. And, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institution and the Heritage Foundation, teachers are paid $120 billion over market value.
There is fraud at every level of the education system, thanks mostly to politics, said Herbert London, professor emeritus at New York University. Teachers and professors go along to save their jobs.
"They simply cannot say that college isn't for everyone ... or that rigorous exit requirements at any level do not exist," he said. "Hence, there is the clarion call for more money."
College tuition can't keep rising twice as fast as family income, but President Barack Obama wants to keep the scam going a little longer. He's proposed a student loan forgiveness program, with taxpayers eating the difference. It would save students about $8 a month, but the kids are too innumerate to figure that out.
Others have. In a Rasmussen poll Oct. 25, 66 percent of respondents opposed student loan forgiveness. And in Colorado Tuesday, voters rejected, 65-35, an initiative to raise taxes to provide more money for education.
Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette and The Blade of Toledo, Ohio ( firstname.lastname@example.org , 412 263-1476).