It’s no secret that the value of a college education is — and has been for some time — on a downward slide, but that isn’t stopping thousands of young Americans from taking on mountains of student loan debt in order to earn a degree. In the new book Is College Worth It?, former Secretary of Education William Bennett and his co-author try to understand why higher education is becoming more of a burden than a boon for many Americans.
Bennett and his co-author, David Wilezol, write in a recent column for CNBC:
Many students are tempted to believe that college is no longer a value proposition for them. After all, costs have risen over 1,100% since 1978, far outpacing inflation.
Fifty percent of the class of 2011 was unemployed or dramatically underemployed. In another survey, only 16% of employers reported that new hires from four-year colleges were “very qualified” for the workforce. Academically, one study showed that only 45% of students showed any meaningful cognitive gains after three semesters. Regardless of what one considers the purpose of college to be, it is clear that costly dysfunction is plaguing the system.
With such dismal outcomes across the board, is college still worth it?
The authors contend that higher education may still be a good option for many students, but only if institutions work to fix “massive inefficiencies” in the education system.
First, the authors say, colleges must end the “academic arms race” by doing away with over-the-top amenities on campuses that provide little or no benefit to students’ education.
As a result of increased revenue campuses often are furnished with extravagant amenities like rock-climbing walls, hot tubs and apartment-style dorms. Boston University even has a “lazy river” inner-tube ride for students. These are nice creature comforts, but ones that are ultimately unessential to the mission of educating students. These, too, are designed to attract the wealthiest students.
Another important aspect of revitalizing the value of college is cutting back on the “superabundance of personnel who manage campus life and ideology but contribute little to student learning,” contend Bennett and Wilezol. They believe that colleges could vastly cut costs to students by doing away with employees whose sole purposes are fundraising, overseeing diversity programs or researching without teaching.
A recurring theme presented in Is College Worth It?: Because colleges have access to too many Federal dollars and are incentivized to chase those dollars, the very programs designed to make college more accessible for Americans have an inflationary result, driving up the price of college. Meanwhile, the value of a degree falls. That is to say, colleges are spending money to chase money and the students are left behind.
But the authors of Is College Worth It? are certainly not the first to point this out. Consider what Scripps University assistant economics professor Sean Flynn recently said about academia’s big spending addiction: “The scariest number I’ve seen is that in the Cal State system between 1970 and 2008… the number of faculty only went up 3 percent, but the number of administrators went up 237 percent. The entire educational system has had massive amounts of money thrown at it and most of it has gone to things that have not improved the actual educational outcomes.”
And in December 2010, writing for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Richard Vedder, the director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, penned an article entitled “The Great College-Degree Scam.” In his work, Vedder essentially concedes that the government push for higher education has saturated the job market and forced more graduate and post graduate degree holders to take jobs for which they are overqualified and/or underpaid.
“…[T]he push to increase the number of college graduates seems horribly misguided from a strict economic/vocational perspective. It is precisely that perspective that is emphasized by those, starting with President Obama, who insist that we need to have more college graduates,” Vedder writes.
He goes on to explain that degrees are becoming little more than screening tools for employers later in the piece, “…[C]redential inflation arises from a perceived need by individuals to demonstrate potential employment competence through a piece of paper, i.e. a college diploma. Employers are using education as a screening and signaling device, at a low cost directly to them (although not costless because of the taxes they pay to sustain much of this), but at a high cost to the prospective employees and to society as a whole.”
Many people employed in academia suffer a sort of cognitive dissonance that disallows them to see what harm could come from making campuses live up to ivory expectations and hiring massive administrative staffs to recruit students who may or may not belong in college, but have access to fistfuls of Federal money. But in Is College Worth It?, the authors, both of whom are members of the academic community, admonish that America’s institutions of higher learning will likely destroy academia with an addiction to Federal funds: “If traditional higher education wants to retain its prestige, its historical significance, and its students, it should re-establish a college education that serves the heart, the mind and the checkbook. If it doesn’t, the future of higher education may move on without it.”