Tuesday, June 5, 2012

“Is College Worth the Cost?”

Sydney M. Williams

Thought of the Day
“Is College Worth the Cost?”
June 5, 2012

Much noise has been raised about the fact that student debt, in excess of $1 trillion. It exceeds both credit card and automobile debt. The bigger question, though: In terms of financial remuneration, is college worth the expenditure? A corollary question: Is the cost of college intensifying society’s stratification?

The first question is posed in terms of pay, because the value of a college education extends far beyond what one can earn. It has been suggested that education is wasted on the young and, in some cases perhaps it is, but college today is seen primarily as a means to a higher income. However, a college education should not simply be about making more money; its principal purpose should be to broaden one’s horizons, to read books and study subjects that one will likely never again encounter – in short, to become an educated person.

A good education should expose students to a broad range of opinions. Unfortunately, too many college professors today have become conventional in their teaching of leftwing ideas and ideals, while being intolerant of those who teach or want to learn classical liberalism. Too many students leave college contemptuous of those who disagree with them. That attitude feeds the dissonance that now divides us politically. Education, at least in part, should be an end in itself, not simply a means toward the end of finding a higher paying job. If it is the former, how do we put a price on it? Additionally, college offers the opportunity for making life-long friends; networking has become increasingly important and made easier because of social networks.

Nevertheless, the rising costs of college, relative to the reward one should be able to expect, begets the question: has college become a luxury that is becoming unaffordable, in its current guise, for the majority? I hope not, but I fear the answer is yes.

In the late 1950s and early ‘60s, room, board and tuition for one year at a competitive private college cost about $2,500. A good job for a non-engineering student paid about $5,000 per year, roughly two times a year’s college cost. When my children graduated from college in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, a year’s room, board and tuition cost about $20,000, while a job – again for a non-engineer – paid about one times the cost of a year of college. Today, the annual cost at a competitive private colleges is approximately $52,000, while, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average income for a college graduate in 2011 was $41,701 – roughly 80% of a college education, down from 200% two generations ago. Not only that, but students are leaving college owing much more money than in past years.

In fact, when I was in college there were no student loan programs, as least as we know them today. There were still a few students on the G.I. Bill, perhaps the most successful government program of all time, but the 1950s, after Korea, was a relatively peaceful period. The government began making some grants in 1958, in response to the Soviet’s Sputnik launch, but it wasn’t until 1972, with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, that the loan program we know today made its appearance. Tuition, in those far-off days, was paid for by parents, or the student received college scholarships or grants, or one worked their way through, as I did driving a school bus, writing for a local newspaper and making grinders at a local shop.

Thomas B. Edsall, a former reporter for the Washington Post and now professor of journalism at Columbia, wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, a couple of months ago, “The Reproduction of Privilege.” In the piece, he argues that college today is “reinforcing class stratification,” that an increasing number of college students at “competitive” colleges come from families in the upper half of the income distribution. In turn, he argues, that has decreased intergenerational mobility. All of that may well be true, but it is the causes we should be considering not the effects.

There are at least two areas of our society we need to explore. The first: why are our high school students increasingly lagging their compatriots from overseas? The second: Are college tuitions, growing at double the rate of inflation, fair to students and their parents?

Despite salaries and benefits that match or exceed the average college graduate, public school teachers are producing increasingly less qualified students. As most of you know, I lay a big part of the blame on teacher’s unions, to whom tenure for teachers takes precedence over student results. According to the Broads Foundation, 70% of eighth graders cannot read proficiently and most will never catch up. 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year, and 44% of dropouts under the age of 24 are jobless.

The United States exited World War II with the best public schools in the world. However, we have lost ground massively. In an article in the March 10, 2010 edition of the New York Times, Sam Dillon, quoting Andreas Schleicher, a senior education official at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), wrote that among the 34 member countries of the OECD, the United States ranked 30th in terms of high school completion. Supporting the conclusion of the OECD study, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked 15-year olds in a 2009 study. Of 70 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in mathematics.

Mr. Schleicher’s comments came before a Senate education committee. Senator Tom Harkin (D – Iowa) pointed out, “The problem lies with many kids before they get to school, and if we don’t crack that nut, we’re going to continue to patch and fill.” Mr. Schleicher noted that Poland had raised the literary skills of its 15-year olds by the equivalent of almost a year in less than a decade. Most successful nations, he claims, maintain central control over standards and curriculum, but give the local schools more freedom from regulation. He concluded but pointing out that the question for the U.S. is not just how many charter schools it establishes, “but how to build the capacity for all schools to assume charter-like autonomy.”

One way to improve the competitive nature of our public schools would be to disenfranchise the NEA and the AFT, or to weaken their iron-like grip. Another step would be to increase competition by expanding voucher programs and the number of charter schools.

Tuitions have been rising at unsustainable rates. Colleges must review their budgets, in terms of funding research versus supporting students. They must consider administration costs. While American universities are considered the best in the world, many have become bloated with higher than necessary costs not directly related to their primary mission – to produce the finest, best educated students possible. As I mentioned in a May 2nd “Thought of the Day,” a good place for administrators to start is Dr. Richard Soghoian’s new book, Mind The Gap. Dr. Soghoian is the long-time Head of School at Columbia Grammar in New York. In his book, he articulates many of the problems of inflated budgets and suggests sensible responses.

Education is about generating and satisfying curiosity, about challenging conventional wisdom. College should serve as a forum for ideas. While there is a necessity for graduates to leave and make a living, college should not be deemed as a means to an end. It is primarily a place to learn, to think and to express one’s self. Unfortunately, too many academics have become advocates for left wing policies and intolerant of any who disagree with them. As such, they are illiberal and destroy what is a university’s greatest role – a forum to discuss and debate all aspects of an idea. To many of us college is worth the cost, but it is a luxury, increasingly unaffordable to vast swaths of our citizens.

Economists and politicians emphasize the difference between the incomes of college graduates and high school graduates. We need high schools to do a better job of keeping the young in school. We need to recognize that there is nothing ignoble or demeaning about trades like electricians, carpenters, stone masons and plumbers. Not everyone needs or wants a college education. And, we should acknowledge that a college education should be more than simply a path to higher incomes. It should be about learning. We also must emphasize community colleges, both as steps toward a four-year education, as well as learning a specific trade. And colleges must control costs and ensure that their greatest responsibility is to their students, not their tenured or union protected professors and administrators.

Society will always be stratified. There will always be the rich and the privileged. Some people are smarter and work harder. Others are better at networking. On a few, lady luck shines. Life is never fair and cannot be made so. We can only offer equality of opportunity and do our best that paths, both up and down, are relatively clear.

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