How did college get so expensive? And what can America do to fix the problem. Megan McArdle over at the Atlantic has an interesting piece on the cost of college.

As she points out, college costs have skyrocketed, and most of that growth is subsidized by student loans. The trouble with this development is that while everyone knows college graduates make more money, by paying for college with student loans students have effectively spent a great deal of that money before they’ve earned it.

Well why not just get rid of the loans then? Why not give direct subsidies, the way they do in other countries. Well that’s harder than it looks. As McArdle writes:

Even if we wanted to do this, we could hardly afford direct subsidy of America’s world class university system along European lines; there’s a reason that European universities seem so perpetually starved for resources.

Either we’d gut the best university system in the world to save money, or we’d simply relieve the burden on students by shifting it to taxpayers. Meanwhile, we’d free students of the need to think about the cost, and value of their education–which sounds nice if you think about future nuclear physicists skipping gaily towards the registrar, and less nice if you think about Perpetual Students who never quite finish that degree in Old Church Slavonic.

And this is precisely the problem. Even if it makes sense in a theoretical sense to simply give students money for study if we value education as a culture—something I’ve often argued myself—students just won’t all study the sort of things America actually can use.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer