Colleges Must Fix All of Society’s Ills – Or Else! (Part 4)

Too much debt and too little learning? A federal ratings system is on the horizon…

Three weeks ago I presented a list of expectations, complaints or remedies for all that ails higher education that have received media attention in recent months. In two subsequent blog posts, I discussed subsets of this list at some length. In this post I will review the remaining items. They are:

  • Too much student debt – and it’s rising;
  • Too many students learn too little in college;
  • We need more technical education; and
  • Higher education needs a scorecard on affordability, access and outcomes (including salary of graduates).

These four items represent three criticisms and a proposed remedy. Allow me to examine each of them independently.

Is it fair to say that students are graduating with too much debt? Well, how could there be any question? Total student debt, as florid-faced television commentators tell us with scorn, now exceeds credit card debt (or $1 trillion, whichever reference generates more concern). Average student debt per student rises every year, and is now almost $30,000 – the percentage of graduating seniors with debt rises as well, and is now at 71 percent.

Attributing blame for the problem of rising debt, however, is like kicking a hornet’s nest. In a recent poll, 42 percent of students blamed the colleges, 30 percent blamed the federal government, and just eight percent blamed themselves (Inside Higher Ed, Dec. 4, 2013). On the other hand, those commenting on this report were far quicker to blame the students (“But in the end, the responsibility for those debts rests on those who signed on the dotted line”).

Let’s allow two things:

First, a college education costs a great deal more today, as a fraction of the average family income, than it did a generation or two ago – so colleges must accept some responsibility for the increase in student debt.

Second, there is a huge range of costs over the spectrum of colleges, ranging from less than $1,000 annually at some community colleges to more than $60,000 at several elite colleges. (These are sticker prices; actual prices may be much lower, after institutional aid is factored in.) College prices reflect the range one sees with automobiles or hotels – but with cars and hotels, people generally choose what they can afford. Because of the way colleges often imply that the actual price is highly negotiable, students will sometimes apply to colleges they cannot afford, in the hope of receiving a huge financial aid package. But students often fall in love with the campus, and if the aid package does not materialize, they (and their families) may “try to make it work” – and then borrow far more than they should.

There is no easy solution. Colleges must do a better job of holding the line on tuition increases, and they need to be far more proactive in working with students and their families regarding indebtedness – and that may mean counseling some students to choose a less expensive institution. Students and their families must balance “heart and head” – that is, not allow emotion to overcome good sense in choosing a particular college.

But what of the concern that students are learning too little in college? The authors of Academically Adrift (2011) claimed that many students were learning almost nothing in college, a claim that created a furor in the academic world (and that sold a lot of copies of the book).

In reporting on the findings of the book, however, the media tended to gloss over the data that the authors presented. The authors looked at students’ performance on something called the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), an instrument frequently used by colleges to measure improvement in writing and analytical skills by evaluating the student at the beginning of the freshman year, and then again at the end of the sophomore year or the senior year.

A relatively high percentage of students showed little or no gain when the test was given later in their college careers. That is concerning, and worthy of attention, but it’s not the same thing as “learning almost nothing.” Engineers, accountants, biologists and architects all learn about their disciplines, as do students in every major, presumably – but the CLA is not designed to measure that kind of learning.

The public reactions to the claims in Academically Adrift were clearly overwrought – but how do colleges know that their students are actually learning? Pointing out that the students passed their final exams is hardly the kind of proof a skeptical public is willing to accept – and too many employers (and too many college graduates for that matter) do not feel that the students have been well prepared for the world of work (“More Data Show Students Unprepared for Work, But What To Do About It?Inside Higher Ed, Oct. 29, 2013). Colleges and universities would be well advised not to ignore this very real concern. The movement towards competency-based education (discussed in Part 3 of this blog post) may be the answer.

What about the call for more technical education – and how does that issue relate to the notion that everyone should be able to attend college, if they wish to? Almost no one believes that universal college education is either desirable or possible, but our K-12 system is designed to keep the great majority of students on a college track right through graduation. The fact that more than 20 percent of them do not persist to graduation – and the fact that many of those who do graduate do not do so with the academic credentials to move directly into college-level work – are accepted as the necessary price of keeping the college “option” available for everyone. The problem is that the failure of large numbers of students to complete high school has huge economic consequences, both for the students individually and for society at large. Is more technical education the answer?

First, it is important to recognize that, when speaking of “technical education,” two distinct educational strands are often conflated. When President Obama speaks of technical education (“Obama Puts $100 Million Behind Quest to Improve Tech Training,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 20, 2013), he is referring primarily to high schools and community colleges. When the reference is to STEM education (science, technology, engineering, mathematics), the focus is primarily on four-year colleges and universities (although further complicating matters is that half of STEM jobs do not require a four-year degree: “STEM Jobs Key to Better Economy,” USA Today, Jan. 10, 2014).

Obviously, colleges and universities have always played a vital role in the production of highly skilled scientists and engineers. But if the nation decides it needs more such individuals, colleges require a pipeline of interested and competent students coming from K-12. Trying to persuade a prospective psychology major to major instead in engineering is almost always an exercise in futility.

The final issue is the proposed federal rating system, announced last summer by President Obama (“Faculty Advocates React to Obama’s Plan for Higher Ed,” Inside Higher Ed, Aug. 23, 2013). There is fairly broad acceptance within the higher education community that holding colleges and universities accountable is not at all unreasonable, but if ever there were a case of “the devil is in the details,” this is it.

For example, among many reactions from the higher education community to the idea of a federal rating system, Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), said in a letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan that the rating system would produce “misleading information and perhaps create perverse incentives.” APLU supports publishing graduation rates; loan default rates; average net price; and employment and graduate school attendance rates – but urges that those metrics be weighed with a “student readiness index” to avoid unfair comparisons of colleges with very different populations of students (Inside Higher Ed, Jan. 23, 2014). The APLU does not consider the use of the earnings data of graduates as constituting a useful measure.

The federal government provides undergraduates more than $135 billion annually, in the form of grants and loans. It has an understandable interest in knowing that these funds are being used efficiently and effectively. The challenge is to devise a way of holding institutions accountable without causing unintended consequences to the many institutions that are serving their students well. Whether that worthy goal can be achieved remains to be seen.

Next week, in Part 5, we’ll wrap up this extended discussion with a summary of how higher education should respond to the rising expectations being placed on it by various elements of society.