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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Bursting the College Bubble

With nearly twenty years of teaching experience, I have a unique educational perspective. Unlike most, I have spent a lengthy amount of time in each of the k-12 education arenas:  public, private, and homeschool. This also includes operating from a strictly secular approach, a strictly Christian approach, and somewhat of a mix of the two.

In the last few months I have linked to several columns on my website which have heralded the next debt bubble ripe to burst in the U.S.—higher education. Americans now owe more on their student loans than on their credit cards—over $1trillion.

In 2011, the average college student graduated with over $23,000 in student loan debt, with 10% of graduates owing more than $54,000. Worse still is that nearly one-third of those who borrow never graduate.

While student loan debt is often considered “good debt,” in that it leads to significantly more income over a lifetime, most recent college graduates are finding that not to be the case. According to a 2011 survey, 53.6% of bachelor’s degree-holders under the age of 25 were unemployed or underemployed—working lower-skilled jobs such as waiter, retail clerk, bartender, and the like, making little or no use of their college education. What’s more, last year Time magazine reported on a study that revealed that 85% of new college graduates are moving back in with their parents.

Of course, student loan debt is greatly due to the astronomical rise of the cost of a college education. The cost of tuition and fees has increased faster than healthcare costs. According to the Department of Education, if these trends continue, by 2016 the cost of a public college will have more than doubled in just 15 years. University of Tennessee law professor, Glenn Harlan Reynolds, in his book The Higher Education Bubble, reports that, with the easy availability of federal funds, tuition and fees have gone up over 440% in the last 30 years.

Yet, even with such dramatic cost increases, enrollment at colleges and universities continues to grow. For decades now in the U.S., a premium has been placed on a college education. In 2009 President Obama vowed that by 2020, America will “have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” However, some are beginning to rethink such ambitions.

The belief that almost every high school graduate should go to college is another significant factor in the looming college debt bubble. This has led to what George Will recently called “subprime college educations.” This, in turn, has led to, among other things, bloated college faculties and administrations, where, in some ridiculous cases, administrators actually outnumber faculty.

Robert Samuelson notes that in 1940, fewer than 5% of Americans had a college degree. “No more,” he notes, adding that, “At last count roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree.”

Samuelson also notes that the increased emphasis on a college education has resulted in “dumbed down college.” Along with lower entrance requirements, sociologists and authors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal that “45 percent of college students hadn't significantly improved their critical thinking and writing skills after two years; after four years, the proportion was still 36 percent.” Thus, in addition to “subprime college educations,” we are getting “subpar” ones as well.

The emphasis on a college education in America is in spite of Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates which show that only 20% of U.S. jobs require a bachelor’s degree or more. So, given all of this mess, what is to be done?

One part of the solution is something that I have said for years, and Samuelson agrees: there need to be closer ties between high schools and the job market. Yet, as Samuelson points out, by and large in the U.S. “vocational education is de-emphasized and disparaged,” and “apprenticeship programs combining classroom and on-the-job training…are sparse.” Who earns more than a lawyer, a resident physician, or most company directors, Marvin Olasky asks. The answer: a plumber.

Another part of the solution, and this should certainly be the case within Christian education, is that all students need to understand clearly that their worth as a human being is not measured by their academic success. No matter how challenging and dynamic a school’s curriculum, engaging its faculty, or impressive its facilities, some people simply were not made to be in a traditional classroom—especially one that is college driven.

Lastly, one factor that cannot be ignored when it comes to educating children is the influence of family. In fact, it is the most important factor. As a popular columnist noted in 2010, “research suggests that about 90 percent of the differences among the proficiency of schools can be explained by five factors: days absent from school, hours spent watching television, pages read for homework, the quantity and quality of reading matter in the home -- and the presence of two parents in the home.”

In other words, “the best predictor of a school’s performance is family performance.” Until our culture addresses the sad and destructive decline of the traditional (biblical) family, school and student performance will merely reflect this decline.

Copyright 2012, Trevor Grant Thomas
At the Intersection of Politics, Science, Faith, and Reason.
Trevor and his wife Michelle are the authors of: Debt Free Living in a Debt Filled World

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