It's been drummed into the heads of Americans for going on a century: Getting a college education is the best way to ensure future career and financial success.
Couple that mantra with government-backed programs keeping student loan rates low and what do you get? The monster known as American college tuition, something that's grown well past the rate of inflation for more than five decades.
And it also has spawned a trillion-dollar student loan debt, much of which will never be repaid. The taxpayers will be left holding the bill, just like they were when the housing market went bust.
Because of the deep-held belief that Americans have about the value of a college education and de facto government backing, universities feel no marketplace pressure to rein in spending, force tenured faculty to actually teach or provide students with an education that will get them jobs.
But the glory days for the academic industry may be coming to an end. More and more people are questioning whether the most expensive colleges are really worth it. And there's solid economic evidence that skyrocketing student debt is eroding the economic advantages that graduates once enjoyed.
This week, we learned that researchers for the One Wisconsin Institute found that the home ownership rate among people paying off student loans is 36 percent lower than that of their peers without such debt. And the disparity can be seen at all income levels.
In fact, the Census Bureau found that between 1993 and 2011, the average student loan debt for Americans with a bachelor's degree jumped by more than 82 percent, to $27,547.
And guess what? All that is a good thing.
The more the public gets the caveat emptor spirit when it comes to choosing a post-high school path for themselves or their children, the better the choices will become.
The free market has a way of creating healthy competition that way.
By any definition, there should be a lot more tuition price competition in the college market. The U.S. has more than 4,100 four- and two-year colleges. But because the government tinkers so much with everything from loan rates to student grants, the price options aren't as great as they should be. As long as the government makes sure loans—no matter how expensive—will be available to just about any student, exactly what incentive do colleges have to lower tuition prices?
The result is that most Americans don't have as much choice when it comes to how much they spend on college as they do when it comes to homes, cars and food.