What’s Wrong with Higher Education?

The nice part about having a blog is being able to spout off about whatever topic happens to be bothering me the most. Today, I’m going to take advantage of my bully pulpit here to talk about the problems of higher education. Well, I’m going to express a few of my opinions and then hand the floor over to a real expert who has pretty much nailed the situation, in my view. The problems are many and they’re not simple ones.

There seems to be a ground swell portending a possible sea change in higher education. The main issue is cost. The price of a college degree has always been a challenge for families, even back in the early ’60s when tuition at The Big Three Ivies was in the two thousand dollar range. Of course today you can’t touch a year at the Ivies (and many other schools) for $50-60K. The mind boggles.

The other wave of the ground swell appears to be relevancy. Is a college degree really worth it? By “worth” I’m referring to not only the cost but also the debt. Some families can afford to write a check to cover the entire expense of today’s college costs, but the overwhelming majority of families cannot do so. Graduates now are routinely ending their undergraduate years with loan debt in the $30-50K (or more) range. Six-figure debt is not unheard of. It’s a scary scenario.

The quality of a college degree has also come under recent scrutiny. Some college graduates enter the potential work force unequipped to deal with the demands (both technical and otherwise) of the real “working” world. Some employers have complained that properly prepared graduates are hard to find.

Lots of problems. Don’t just take my word for it. Meet Ohio University economist, Richard Vedder, who participated in a 2011 panel (“Higher Education Reform: Where the Right and the Left Meet”) put on by the Pope Center, focusing on the problems in American higher ed today. He boiled higher education’s ocean of problems down to six. Here is his explanation:

The 6 Biggest Problems with Higher Ed

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The six biggest problems with American higher education are:

  1. Colleges are too expensive and inefficient;
  2. Students don’t work very hard and learn little;
  3. There is an abysmal lack of information on which to evaluate the effectiveness of universities or the return on public investments in them;
  4. A minority of students graduate on time, and many don’t graduate at all;
  5. There is a total disconnect between enrollment levels and student curricula on one side and needs of the American labor market on the other;
  6. Federal student financial aid policies have been a spectacular and expensive failure.

Other than that, everything is fine. Actually, that is not even true since I have not mentioned the scandals around intercollegiate athletics, the joke that accreditation is, or a host of other things.

Elaborating briefly, it costs roughly three times as much to go to college as it did, say, 30 years ago, adjusting for inflation. The broader burden to society as a whole has likewise tripled over the past half century.

Several surveys independently confirm that the typical full-time undergraduate spends less than 30 hours weekly on studies, less than on recreational activities like drinking, playing ball, watching television, or having sex. Other work suggests that the literacy of college graduates is declining, knowledge of basic facts about our civic life is abysmally absent, and that critical learning skills of students advance little during the college years.

Colleges are in the information business, but don’t even know whether their seniors know more than their freshmen. Information on finances is often largely hidden as well. For example, a few days ago the State of Ohio revealed that its state universities held about $3 billion in unrestricted cash reserves, far more than the state government itself has. How can you evaluate their efficiency or success if you do not have basic information?

Federal data suggest that just 36 percent of students entering bachelor’s degree programs graduate within the four years that a degree is supposed to take. Well over 40 percent do not graduate within six years. There are good sized schools with four year graduation rates in the single digits —the University of Texas at El Paso is an example. Why do accredit these institutions?

Almost one-third of American college graduates today hold jobs that the U.S. Department of Labor says requires a high school education or less. We have vast numbers of college educated taxi drivers, bartenders, waiters, beauticians, and so forth. I had a fellow with a master’s in history cut a tree down for me next year. More and more people are graduating with big debts only to take a job that pays modest amounts and requires no higher level educational skills.

Federal student aid policies are a disaster. They were designed to help low income kids go to college. The proportion of college students attending universities today is lower than it was when the Pell Grant program started four decades ago. My guess is that more than two out of every three Pell Grants recipients do not graduate from college in six years —the Education Department does not publish that statistic, no doubt because it is politically embarrassing. The aid programs do not reward good academic performance more than bad, and have contributed to a lowering of higher education. …

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Do you agree? Disagree? Care to add to or amend his list?

Read what others have said about these issues here, on the College Confidential discussion forum. Feel free to add your thoughts.

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