Most think the enormous growth in college enrollments in the last half of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st contributed to our prosperity and high quality of life. Yet during the period, one could argue that America’s exceptionalism and its primacy in world affairs began an accelerating decline, so now we are entering a China Century or, more broadly, Asian Century. And universities arguably played a role in several indicators of decline, suggesting Milton Friedman was prescient in suggesting in a 2003 email to me that perhaps we should be taxing universities for their negative spillover effects rather than subsidizing them for alleged “positive externalities.”

Let me show just six of many indicators of decline.

  • In the 1950s and 1960s, when fewer than 10 % of adult Americans had college degrees, annual economic growth was about 4% a year; in the 2010s, when over 30% had degrees, that had declined sharply to about 2.3%;
  • Around 1950 or 1960, about 25 babies were born per 1,000 American population; today, birth rates have fallen more than 50%, to about 12 per 1,000, and some states (e.g., my Ohio) are reporting more deaths than births;
  • In 1960, fewer than 10 out of every 100 births occurred outside wedlock; today about 40 are, with devastating impact on learning, earnings, respect for authority and needed discipline inculcated by traditional two parent families;
  • Before an unwritten fiscal constitution was destroyed in the late 20th century, the national debt was usually less than 50% the size of a year’s GDP; today it exceeds 100 % and no major political forces are pushing for fiscal responsibility; total unfunded liabilities of our national government today may exceed $100 trillion -over four years of GDP;
  • As the proportion of college graduates has more than tripled over the past half century, measured income inequality has grown sharply and achieving the American Dream by upward income mobility is becoming somewhat rarer.
  • We are becoming a nation of atheists and agnostics; the proportion of Americans reporting church affiliation has dropped coincident with the rise in the proportion of college graduates. Declining respect for the Ten Commandments and other religious-based strictures may be contributing to declining respect for the rule of law.

It may well be that college education is partly responsible for many of these trends. It was college professors who preached the Keynesian doctrine that federal budget deficits can be a powerful force for national good, providing cover for irresponsible fiscal behavior by national politicians.

Zealous climate change and environmental advocates within universities argue human actions cause mortal damage to the planet and to its life. Although strictly anecdotal, I suspect American higher education institutions buy more condoms than any other non-profit organizations. Human beings are often viewed as villains needing to be numerically controlled. Humans pollute.

Perhaps more controversial, academics largely devised and advocated for the modern welfare state, and I don’t think it is coincidental that the sharp rise in babies born out of wedlock from the 1960s forward came as public assistance programs grew extraordinarily fast; the Great Society was a product of ideas of college-educated individuals, often professors working temporarily for the federal government.

The ingredients for rapid economic growth were chipped away by academics who denigrated the virtues of capitalism and individual initiative advocated by Adam Smith and other Enlightenment philosophers and economists—high saving, free trade, low interference in human decision-making, modest taxation, etc. Inefficient governmental allocation of resources crowded out more efficient allocations made by markets.

Partly because of the unintended consequences of governmental student financial assistance policies (federal loans especially), we may have actually made higher education less accessible to the poor, and raised barriers to income mobility. While faculty overwhelmingly support progressive policies ostensibly promoting income equality, they may actually be strengthening academic aristocracies increasing barriers for young, poor, but also clever and ambitious individuals to succeed in our society.

It is revealing in the debates over slimming down the Biden “social infrastructure” package, most higher education provisions, including “free community college”, have been eliminated. Public support for universities is vital, but increasingly endangered. Will we stop subsidizing state universities and start taxing tuition fees? Probably not, but don’t rule it out.