The United States is facing a calamity in higher education. The culprit is spiraling college tuition costs that have led to over a trillion dollars of student debt while the education being paid for is becoming less advantageous in the global economy. The result is that too many students graduating from U.S. colleges are inadequately prepared to enter the marketplace. In simple terms, the system has become corrupted and what the systems provides has become irrelevant.
The first issue is that the cost of a college degree is increasing disproportionately to inflation. This is largely because education has become a commodity. As more people go to college and drive up demand the costs of education have risen to accommodate the increase in students. This has largely been in the form of administrative fees and salaries, which have risen at a sharper rate than have faculty salaries. Additionally, those guiding the universities, their presidents, are now less likely to come from the world of academia than they are to be the product of business, because business is indeed what higher education in the US has become. The commodification of education has led to a decline in its quality.
Secondly, state governments are funding public schools at lower levels than years previously and passing the economic burden to the student. The result is that students are increasingly turning to the federal government for help and are taking out more in loans than ever before and getting deeper into debt. Student debt in the United States has reached over a trillion dollars, which means that educational debt is currently more than credit card debt.
The federal government has enabled a descent into moral hazard by providing guaranteed loans below market rates, often to students unprepared to commit themselves to the thousands of dollars in debt. Combine this with the reality that the increasing cost of higher education is returning less on the investment as entry-level salaries have declined. The result is a virtual debtor’s prison for recent graduates trying to begin a career under crushing debt.
This brings up the second facet in the decline of higher education – the preparation of students to think logically and express themselves clearly while also imparting concrete skills that are related to the needs of employers. The disappointment here is that the U.S. system of higher education, often lauded as the best in world, is in reality failing to provide an education that has applicable and tangible value in the marketplace. In a recent global ranking, college students in the U.S. were ranked 31st in math and 23rd in science. A greater emphasis on technological innovation through education in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math) is increasingly necessary.
At the same time, our higher education system must continue to stress the real value of a liberal arts curriculum. The ability to think and communicate clearly is imperative to our country’s future success. Bringing aspects of the STEM disciplines into the liberal arts studies, and vice versa, is essential to producing well educated students ready to face the challenges of today’s technologically saturated environment. The objective is not to remake the current college experience into a merely vocational endeavor, but to reconcile the goal of intellectual rigor with the need of being profitable. In doing so we cannot divorce intellectual discovery from practical skill -- the ivory tower must open its doors to the realities of the world.
How do we retain the competitive edge of higher education in America while simultaneously reducing its costs? First, make college shorter. The standard four year college education could be shortened to three years. This can be done without forfeiting the extracurricular activities which add to the richness of the university experience or, more importantly, without sacrificing the mission of the academy – to educate. A shortened college experience will help to reduce the amount of student debt being undertaken and force students and administration to focus on fewer and more relevant courses.
Second, we need to expand the idea of the public-private partnership. Many companies spend millions training new recruits to their specifications. If universities in the U.S. can provide these companies with higher caliber students that have been prepared to use qualitative reasoning as well as quantitative skills, then employers can offer more internships and entry level positions while having more faith in the worth of their applicants.
Finally, we need to adjust the incentives for students deciding on their course of study in college. The federal loan program the government provides could be tilted in favor of STEM degrees by offering an economic incentive of lower loan interest rates than those rates offered for less practical college majors. A concerted effort should also be implemented at fostering a more effective public-private partnership toward recruitment and continuation in STEM studies. Essential to this is developing substantive science and math education that begins at a young age and is inclusive of all students regardless of gender, race or income. The Obama administration’s "Change the Equation"initiative is a good step in this direction.
Anyone who believes in the promise of human capital understands that the money spent now on education will provide economic benefits in the future, but the current higher education paradigm prevalent in the U.S. is flawed. We must make university educations more affordable while developing the real skills necessary to compete in global markets. We must reinvest in the ethos of the academy and hold to the ideal that we can balance intellectual sophistication with real-world relevance. If we do not change the system soon it very well may fail the students and the society it is meant to serve.