Is higher education the next bubble to burst? With college enrollment and costs soaring to all-time highs, critics say there is too little access to affordable education and too many students who are racking up big debts while finding it harder to land jobs when they graduate. To some, it is obvious the current economics of higher education cannot continue.
“Although nine out of 10 high school seniors aspire to go to college, almosthalf of U.S. college students drop out, outstanding student loan debt exceeds $730 billion, and tuition and fees rose 248 percent between 1990 and 2008, more than any other major commodity or service in the last 20 years,” writes Anya
Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Kamenetz compares the unprecedented levels of federal and private student loan debt to the mortgage bubble.
“Spending on college is out of control, and the cost curve is not coming down,” she said. Kamenetz is one of several analysts who have examined higher education trends and concluded the time has come for serious reform. And while not everyone agrees on how colleges and universities will change, most observers cite economics and technology as the two forces that will drive reforms, especially in public higher education.
Those who predict the most radical changes in postsecondary education compare the coming shift to the music industry, where new delivery systems have made the cost cheaper and content more accessible.
“Technology will drive a decentralized college experience,” writes Kamenetz. “Learning will become more self-directed, with people having a greater ability to create their own learning experiences within and outside institutions.”
The decentralized model involves students identifying their own goals and finding ways to achieve them by devising personalized courses of studies and taking advantage of online courses that are available for less than in-person classes and in some cases, are free. There are now thousands of video and podcast lectures available through the OpenCourseWare Consortium Academic Earth and YouTube.
“The future lies in personal learning networks and paths, learning that blends experiential and digital approaches, and free and open-source educational models,” said Kamenetz.
Referring to this concept as a “do-it-yourself education,” Kamenetz says that students will increasingly decide what, when, where, and with whom they will learn, which will also include “learning by doing.”
If that sounds improbable, consider the mounting public concern about higher education costs. While 55 percent of Americans still believe that college is essential for success in the workplace, they also are becoming increasingly skeptical about the way colleges are conducting their financial affairs.
Last year, a report from Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education found that six out of 10 Americans believe that colleges mainly care about their own bottom lines instead of making sure that students have a good educational experience. The report, Squeeze Play 2010, summarizes findings of a survey of public attitudes about college affordability and accessibility that has been conducted since 1993. This time, an overwhelming number of respondents, 83 percent, said students have to borrow too much money to pay for higher education.
“The ‘misery index’ when it comes to higher education is climbing – Americans are discovering that they can’t live without higher education, but they increasingly can’t live with skyrocketing prices and reduced access,” said John Immerwahr, senior research fellow at Public Agenda.
According to the survey, the perception that colleges are focusing more on dollars and cents than on students’ educational needs has intensified during the recession, jumping eight points in just two years. At the same time, Americans remain skeptical that colleges and universities are doing everything they can to keep costs down. In general, a majority of Americans believe that colleges could take in more students without hiking prices or reducing quality, and more than half (54 percent) agree that colleges could spend less and still maintain quality education for students.
“Americans have put a lot of faith and a lot of money in their colleges and universities, but they’re increasingly disappointed in higher education’s choices and performance,” said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center. “People are looking for innovation and productivity improvements in higher education, and they’re just not seeing them. Even in a time of budget cuts, the public is not buying the argument that the only alternative available to colleges and universities is higher tuition.”
Others have voiced even stronger criticism of the costs of higher education.
Charles Miller, who was once chairperson of the board of regents at the University of Texas and also served as chairman of the Spellings Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2005, has called the financial system in higher education “dysfunctional.”
“There is a lack of transparency about pricing. Colleges seem to look only at optimizing revenues,” he said at a Cato Institute seminar titled “Ivory Tower Overhaul: How to Fix American Higher Education.”
Miller said there needs to be more transparency about financing and expenditures and a larger sense of return on investment of public monies that flow into higher education.
“A major transformation is coming because of global competitiveness, powerful technological developments and a restrain on finances that will impose limitations and force changes in productivity,” he said.
Three-Year Degrees and Alternatives to College
The pressure to make college more affordable has some pushing to make the three-year degree a new standard.
Last May, an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, written by professors Stephen Trachtenberg and Gerald Kauvar of George Washington University, called the current college experience “idyllic but also wasteful and expensive, both for students and institutions.” Citing the current situation, in which demand is outstripping capacity and is combined with soaring costs, they called for cutting the undergraduate experience to three years to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the nation’s colleges.
“There is simply no reason undergraduate degrees can’t be finished in three years, and
many reasons they should be,” they wrote.
They called switching from four to three years a simple matter of altering calendars and adding a few more faculty members and staff.
“Three-year curriculums, which might involve two full summers of study with short breaks between terms, would increase the number of students who can be accommodated during a four-year period, and reduce institutional costs per student,” they explained. “While there would be costs for the additional teachers and staff, those would be offset by an increase in tuition revenue.”
Not only would the change mean that colleges could use their buildings year round, but it might bring about curriculum innovation as content is condensed into the shorter time frame.
Robert Zemsky, author of Making Reform Work: The Case for Transforming American Higher Education, is also a proponent of the three-year degree. In one article, he wrote that it “would immediately address complaints about high tuition, reducing by 25 percent the price of an undergraduate education. The longer-term and more important benefit would be revitalizing of college curricula and faculty teaching.”
Like his counterparts, Zemsky believes that technology will play a role in transforming the structure of learning in higher ed, moving students toward a model that lets them “study what they need when they need it.” He points out that subjects like calculus can be taught through the use of computerized learning programs, and therefore colleges would be able to shift the amount of “seat time” required to earn a degree.
“Certain subjects such as mathematics, foreign languages and writing can be taught through the use of technology, including tutorials and online coaching,” said Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “We also know that learning in these disciplines can be measured, and therefore the whole time to degree process can be more concentrated.”
There is some evidence that colleges are taking a serious look at three-year degree plans. The University of North Carolina-Greensboro (UNCG) has a Web page devoted to this option and promotes it to incoming students as a chance to “Focus on your future in 3D and graduate in 3 at UNCG.” Last fall, the Rhode Island Legislature passed a bill that would allow students at Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island to have the option of completing their degree in three years. Other universities in Washington and Georgia are adopting the concept.
But Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, says that the three-year degree is no “silver bullet” and will only benefit a small number of students who are capable of meeting the demands of studying on a compressed timetable.
While not opposed to the three-year option, Schneider says it is important that these programs do not reduce the total number of credits required to obtain a bachelor’s degree, and that the existing programs do not short-circuit the full array of essential learning outcomes those credits represent.
“Employers are asking for more knowledge and skill, not less,” she said, citing global competency, internships and teamwork skills that have been added to the list of desirable educational outcomes.
“While the pressure to graduate more students at a time of ever-decreasing resources is acute, we do a disservice to individual students and our society if we confer degrees that do not assure that students have learned all they need to know in this very demanding global century,” she said.
But while the dialogue on three-year degrees continues, others are suggesting that maybe no degree at all should be considered as an option. These individuals suggest that it might be time to reconsider the premise that America needs more college graduates. Instead, they posit that college is not for everyone and many students would be better off if they had more options for vocational training outside the college setting.
One of the most vocal proponents of this option is Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University, who questions the common argument that college graduates are more productive and earn more.
“Forty-five percent of people who go to four-year colleges don’t get a bachelor’s degree within six years. Those people often have met with disappointment, and their investment isn’t particularly good, necessarily,” he said during an interview on National Public Radio. “Another group of people graduate from college and then have trouble getting jobs and end up taking jobs for which a college education is not really a prerequisite. Twelve percent of the mail carriers in the United States today have college degrees. And I have nothing against mail carriers with college degrees, but I don’t think it’s an absolute necessity to have a college degree to deliver the mail.”
Many faculty members would agree, especially since they struggle with students who need remediation and are woefully unprepared to do college-level work. There also is a sense that college degrees are now being required for jobs, such as administrative assistants, that in the past would have been filled by those with a high school diploma. Vedder, who also serves as director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, says the reality is that we might be entering an era in which there are a diminishing number of jobs for college graduates.
“I think some kids are going to college that probably shouldn’t go to college,” he said. “While I applaud the principle behind President Obama’s objective of getting everyone some postsecondary education, in reality there are a lot of jobs out there that are being created or that exist that are not jobs that require college education. We are moving increasingly in the direction of having fewer and fewer jobs available that really require a college education relative to the number of students that are graduating.”