Real-World Value from College

I often wonder if it’s fair to expect a high school senior to know which direction s/he wants his/her life to go at such a young age. When I think back across my own late-teenage years, most of what I recall relates to mild-to-moderate confusion, lack of focus, and a desire to seemingly always “doing something else.” I wasn’t alone.

A fair number of my friends lacked a clear, positive, forward vector that took them into a preselected path through college. Some of those dropped out due to lack of funds or interest. Others made course corrections that extended both their time on campus beyond the traditional four years and increased their loan debt. Of course, some did manage to leave high school armed with a properly discerned and chosen direction for their life’s work. They managed to be successful but they were also definitely in the minority of this group I knew and kept track of as their lives unfolded.

I know; I know. That was then; this is now. However, what bears repeating is that today our consumer-minded society has started to increase scrutiny of higher education institutions, and higher education in general, for a number of reasons. Perhaps the most significant reason is student debt. Right now, statisticians tell us that the average student loan debt for college graduates is hovering around $29,000. That’s a figure to be reckoned with. Depending on one’s monthly payback level, a debt of this magnitude could take a quarter century or longer to pay off. That’s a frightening reality that students should consider when making an enrollment decision.

The question should be, “What price education?”

There is an older enlightening thread on the College Confidential discussion forum entitled A Company Working Hard To Make Sure Your Student Loans Stay With You Until You Die, where posters have issued their thoughts and feelings about college-cost-related student debt. Check that out if you would like to see a broad range of perspectives about student loan debt, paying it back, and the perils of bankruptcy.

One of the best articles I’ve seen recently regarding college scrutiny comes from Victor Davis Hanson writing in National Review Online. Hanson’s title, The Outlaw Campus, is both provocative and intriguing. He cites 10 areas where colleges and universities have become  “rogue institution[s] in need of root-and-branch reform.” I’d like to point out a few of those 10 for your consideration. I encourage you to read all of what Hanson has to say. Here are some excerpts. Hanson’s introduction sets an interesting stage:

Two factors have so far shielded the American university from the sort of criticism that it so freely levels against almost every other institution in American life. (1) For decades a college education has been considered the key to an ascendant middle-class existence. (2) Until recently a college degree was not tantamount to lifelong debt. In other words, American society put up with a lot of arcane things from academia, given that it offered something — a BA or BS degree — that almost everyone agreed was a ticket to personal security and an educated populace.

Not now. Colleges have gone rogue and become virtual outlaw institutions. Graduates owe an aggregate of $1 trillion in student debt, borrowed at interest rates far above home-mortgage rates — all on the principle that universities could charge as much as they liked, given that students could borrow as much as they needed in federally guaranteed loans …

… In short, the university has abjectly defaulted on its side of the social contract by no longer providing an affordable and valuable degree. Accordingly, society can no longer grant it an exemption from scrutiny.

Here are [some] areas that need radical reform.

Hanson’s first area is one of my favorites:

1. Tenure. Few if any other professions — not law, medicine, finance, engineering, etc. — offer guaranteed lifetime employment after a six-year apprenticeship. Tenure was predicated on a simple premise: The protection of faculty free speech and instruction was worth the possible downside of complacency and an absence of serious ongoing faculty audit. …

If a tenured college faculty member is almost entirely immune from judgment, sanctions, or dismissal, this shield of protection can lead to excesses in behavior and imbalances in objectivity in the classroom. Hanson alludes to some of these situations.

3. Curriculum … Somewhere around 1980, a new generation of faculty created a whole new curriculum with the suffix “studies.” The result was advocacy, not disinterested empiricism. Nationwide, thousands of traditional classes in history, philosophy, literature, and the social sciences gave way to ethnic studies, women’s studies, leisure studies, gender studies, peace studies, environmental studies, etc. Students did not receive the same degree of writing and reasoning preparation as in the old classes, much less the factual foundations of a liberal education. It was also nearly impossible to do well in these courses for a student who disagreed with the political assumptions of the advocate faculty. “Studies” contributed in no small part to the unfortunate emergence of the arrogant and ignorant graduate, who left the campus zealous for social change but sadly without the skills to even articulate his goals.

I say a hearty “Amen!” to this point, especially the part about the lack of skills to articulate a position. One of the main issues I have seen in advising college seniors seeking admission to graduate, business, professional, or medical schools is their inability to express themselves adequately in writing. Many are filled with, as Hanson indicates, a zeal for social change, but their written arguments in response to to the ubiquitous “Why do you want to attend ______?” application essay prompts seem sophomoric and pandering, without any genuine intellectual heft. Their hearts may be filled with a genuine fervor for such ideals as a remedy for income inequality, but their essay drafts are riddled with inanities and pie-in-the-sky contentions, not to mention poor English usage and an inability to determine when to start a new paragraph.

4. Admissions … No university publishes the percentage of students who are admitted not on merit but on the basis of athletics, legacies, cash benefactions, race, and gender … “Diversity” became the successor to affirmative action, once the latter’s rules and guidelines became impossible to define, much less to defend. Worse still, even within these rubrics there is no transparency: What size of gift leverages a B+ student into Harvard? Does someone from the Punjab qualify for diversity consideration in the same way a third-generation, one-quarter Latino might? …

Another thumbs up. Granted, it’s the colleges’ ball and bat, so to speak, but I have seen some completely inexplicable admissions decisions over the decades. In 95% of the situations, there’s no appeal. Like it or lump it. Absolutely perfect applicants are routinely denied every year without an accounting of “Why?” All one has to do to observe this issue in action is examine the results of the annual admissions process, both for the early rounds in November and December, which we’ve just experienced, and the regular-decision rounds in the spring.

5. Administration. Much of the recent explosion in annual costs is due to administrative bloat — special assistants to this and deputy associates of that. Left unspoken is that many of these trumped-up six-figure positions are to promote “diversity” and “technology” that have little to do with mastery of reasoning, prose, and scientific knowledge … Private enterprise could supply all sorts of part-time administrative clerks to the university at a fraction of the present in-house costs. If a PhD in French can be hired as a lecturer for $800 a month, surely the Associate Provost for Diversity Affairs can be part-timed and outsourced for $600?

This is one of the main reasons that colleges cost so much. An analog might be those charities where an overwhelming portion of donations go to support administrative overhead. Hanson makes an excellent point about outsourcing. Why does a college need to hire a special assistant or associate dean, with full benefits, when even a temp agency could provide the same level of competence for a fraction of the full-time overhead expense? If colleges, especially state-funded institutions, were held to the same profit-loss standards of private business, much of this bloat would disappear. In our current higher education environment, there is little hard bottom lining, even when we hear of so-called hiring freezes or budget cutbacks.

8. Budget. Since university costs have gone up over 7 percent annually on average for the last two decades, it is past time for transparency, especially given the infusion of state and federal subsidies. How strange that universities will publish statistical data on almost every facet of American life — from racial matters to the environment — but not provide the public with a detailed breakdown of their own expenditures to allow students and their parents to understand why their tuition is priced as it is. Students should have the choice of deciding whether they wish to attend a college that budgets for rock-climbing walls, an Assistant Dean of Internet Technology, or …

Perusing the various “college search” threads on the College Confidential discussion forum can be enlightening when it comes to seeing what today’s college applicants are looking for in the way of accommodations. I think parents would be very interested in seeing the kinds of outlays colleges are making to support their own administration, infrastructure, and other overhead-related costs.

Frankly, I don’t see this situation changing anytime soon, since the heat in the public-scrutiny pressure cooker has not yet reached critical mass. One suggestion: When you are on a college visit, try to make some kind of objective comparison between the kinds of things you see with the the figure that represents the annual student budget (the total cost of tuition, room and board, fees, books, travel, and other costs of attendance). Is there an apparent positive correlation? You won’t get a chance to examine the books, but, for what it’s worth, try to judge whether or not your child and your family as a whole will be getting a least some bang for your hard-earned buck.

Hanson ends his 10-point critique with a highly focused contention:

In sum, we have allowed the university to become a rogue institution, whose protocols are often at odds with normal practice off campus and secretive to a degree unknown elsewhere.

The common theme of all university reform should be transparency. Faculties are superb self-appointed auditors of others; it is time we should extend the same audit to them as well.

As someone who has been involved, albeit indirectly, with the world of higher education for many years, to Hanson’s article I say, “Two thumbs up … way up!”

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Check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.