Is our children learning? And is higher education worth it?
Rarely is the question asked: Are colleges worth the price of admission?
The Economist reports that American universities dominate global rankings; on the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy’s list of the world’s best universities, 17 of the top 20 are American, and 35 of the top 50. American universities also employ 70% of living Nobel prizewinners in science, economics, and “produce a disproportionate share of the world’s most-cited articles in academic journals.”
It isn’t all revelation and academic regalia, however. Some experts are looking at the higher education system objectively, and are painting a dimmer picture of America’s supposedly pristine ivory towers:
Two right-wing think-tanks, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Goldwater Institute, have both produced damning reports about America’s university system. Two left-wing academics, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, have published an even more damning book: “Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids and What We Can Do About It”. And US News & World Report, a centrist magazine, says in its annual survey of American colleges that: “If colleges were businesses, they would be ripe for hostile takeovers, complete with serious cost-cutting and painful reorganisations.”
Rising prices, declining productivity, and administrative bloat are “poisoning” US higher education.
Several experts including Lindsay McCluskey (president of the United States Student Association) and James Altucher (hedge fund manager and president of Formula Capital) recently spoke with The Washington Post and believe that paying for a college education in today's system is a bad deal: “If you crunch the numbers … college is a bad investment.”
"I think it makes less sense for more families than it did five years ago," explains Richard Vedder, economics professor and longtime education researcher at Ohio University. "It's become more and more problematic about whether people should be going to college."
Skyrocketing college fees make “medical inflation look modest by comparison,” increasing by a factor of 15 for in-state students, 24 for out-of-state students, and over 13 for students at private universities. Complicated matters, a quarter of government student loans default. McCluskey voiced her agitation:
I think it's absolutely despicable that students are asked to pay that much. In terms of public education, you can't even call that public when students are taking out an average of $25,000 to complete college and then are paying off student loan debt until they're 50 or 60 years old.
Some argue that professors are not interested in students’ welfare, offering light workloads and inflated grades in exchange for time and space to conduct and public research – the keys to promotion and tenure.
By the numbers:
- Full-time students in four-year colleges spend 14 hours studying each week (down from 24 in 1961);
- Only 40% of students graduate in four years;
- Senior professors at Ivy League universities get sabbaticals every third year rather than every seventh;
- This year, 20 of Harvard's 48 history professors will be on leave.
The Goldwater Institute, an independent government watchdog, found that between 1993 and 2007, “spending on university bureaucrats at America’s 198 leading universities rose much faster than spending on teaching faculty,” and that nearly “all university presidents conduct themselves like corporate titans, with salaries, perks and entourages to match.”
The experts are not looking to undermine education – higher education, specifically – or the pursuit of learning. (Neither am I.) But, the system of institutionalized learning must be reformed. In today’s system of “credentialization,” students don’t seem to be getting anywhere near equal returns on their investments. They pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for a college degree – proof of their ability to commit to and accomplish goals. Plus according to Vedder, the reason colleges have been getting away with raising their fees is that loans allow parents to “tough it out.”
Just because this is the system in place, doesn’t mean that it is the proper system. What can we do? For starters, provide more practical, more affordable, and more capable channels for higher learning. One example of someone who is attempting this is Chris Anderson, the curator of TED, who has begun to rethink what his platform stands for: “We're exploring TED as a global classroom. It's very much part of what we're dreaming of.” TED (as the free, open-access, online lecture hall) is not the answer. However, it is a step in the right direction, offering talks on business, science, design, technology, and global issues. Another example is Shai Reshef’s University of the People, empowering students by offering higher education that is fully accessible and free globally.
Education is the “basis for the American Dream,” which is drifting further and further from reality with every increased tuition fee and exercised education budget cut. Today’s leaders must demand options for advanced, comprehensive education models. It’s the right course of action and a requisite for a brighter future.