What It Takes to Pop a Higher Education Bubble
By Bryan Caplan
There is no “bubble” in American higher education. I’ll bet on it – or to be precise, I have bet on it. Nevertheless, while reading the Digest of Education Statistics (Table 208), I discovered a surprising fact: During my lifetime, a big education bubble already seems to have come and gone. Take a look at the percentage of higher school completers enrolled in college, 1960-2009:
For women, enrollment is close to a straight line. Men, however, reach a local maximum of 63.2% in 1968. The percentage then plunges down to 49.4% in 1974, where it hovers for eight years. Male enrollment doesn’t pass its 1968 peak until 1997!
There’s a simple, hard-to-beat explanation: Roughly 20% of male college students (versus 0% of female college students) were attending to avoid getting drafted and shipped to Vietnam. Once that terrifying threat disappeared, marginal male students stopped going to college.
You could point to this whole affair and say, “See, Bryan, education bubbles do pop. Open your mind.” I unsurprisingly draw the opposite lesson: College enrollment will not noticeably decline without a drastic change in students’ incentives. Removing the threat of military slavery in hellish Vietnamese jungles sharply suppressed male enrollment in the 70s. What plausible unisex shock is likely to have a comparable effect today?