The Ultimate Question: “Is College Worth It?” (Part 1)

The higher ed debate is creating confusion - what we need is clear thinking and analysis.

There was a time, not so many years ago, when college presidents bemoaned their inability to attract much public attention to what they were doing. Ah, for the good old days! We now receive attention from every quarter, and more advice—and criticism, some of it rather hostile—than we know what to do with. We are suffering from a classic case of “be careful what you wish for.”

Consider the range of opinions expressed in the following four comments. An editorial in USA Today (June 4, 2014) includes the following quotes:

“Colleges are able to increase costs without consequence largely because easy access to federal aid assures them a steady supply of students, so debt keeps piling up, which is not just a problem for the students. Taxpayers are vulnerable as students default, for instance, and home building is stifled as debt-laden young people resist taking on mortgages.”

“What’s clear is that taxpayer money is being wasted and that colleges aren’t going to fix the problem.”  (Interestingly, the Government Accountability Office recently reported that it could not determine any relationship between increased loan limits and rising college prices [Inside Higher Ed., February 19, 2014].  Of course there is never a good reason to let facts stand in the way of editorial outrage!)

On the other side of the coin is concern from the editorial board of The New York Times (April 13, 2014). It is troubled by the dramatic increase in part-time faculty, and states:

“All of this [finding or preparing better instructors] will require more money for higher salaries and professional development.  College degrees worth having don’t come cheap.”

Perhaps the solutions is to lock the two editorial boards in a room until they come to consensus.

The president of the Rochester Institute of Technology, in an opinion piece in The Huffington Post (March 17, 2014) lists many things that he thinks are right about American higher education, and, with a clever bit of irony, says:

“U.S. higher education is widely regarded as the best in the world, which is why so many people want to change it.”

And finally Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, notes that the federal government expends $150 billion in student aid each year “and none of it is based upon outcomes…for us to do nothing is untenable” (Inside Higher Ed, July 3, 2014). Given Washington’s historic track record, I am much relieved to know that a solution to all of higher education’s problems is on the way! My point in illustrating the current level of mostly negative commentary about higher education isn’t to elicit sympathy for the plight of college presidents. We are expected to deal with whatever comes our way, and we are well compensated for our presumed ability to meet the challenges of running complex organizations. Instead, my point is that the conversation about higher education has become a Tower of Babel—voices that talk past each other, advocating positions that are irreconcilable, and, in the process, creating confusion and mistrust.

College presidents have contributed to this problem by being, as a group, far too hesitant to weigh in on higher education’s strengths and weaknesses. Our collective timidity has allowed the conversation about higher education to be taken over by people with different agendas, and to degenerate into name-calling and finger-pointing, when what we need is clear thinking and analysis on a topic that is generally regarded as the bedrock of our civilization:  the education of our children.

However, in the absence of much leadership on these issues from college presidents, it is gratifying to know that there are still nuggets of quality discussion coming from current and former academics. A good example is a lengthy article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 19, 2014) by William Deresiewicz that is nominally a critique of the new documentary Ivory Tower, a film that deals with the current state of affairs of American higher education. Deresiewicz makes the telling point that “Few who talk about college in public understand it, and few who understand it talk about it.” As a once-over-lightly treatment of the entire issue, Deresiewicz’s article is well worth reading.

On the question of “is college worth it?” at any given moment discussions are under way on four overlapping but distinct issues that affect how that question is answered. Further complicating the matter is that these discussions are frequently full of factual error. Is it any wonder that parents are confused and angry as they consider the pros and cons of sending their children to college?

I’ll analyze these four issues individually, separate fact from fiction within each, and then I’ll endeavor to construct a reasonably coherent answer to the question of whether college is worth the investment. Here are the issues:

  1. Higher education has become too expensive for too many families, and, as a consequence, too many prospective students are being squeezed out of the market.
  2. There is a student debt “bubble” that is preventing young college graduates from buying homes, starting families, and thereby acting as a drain on the entire economy.
  3. There are too many unemployed or underemployed college graduates who are not earning enough to pay back their student loans.
  4. Not enough college students are graduating, leaving them in debt and without a degree.

We take on the first issue next week.