A thoughtful piece on the state of higher education in America.
Article by: John Ebersole
Forbes – http://onforb.es/1nzQpbx
Is Higher Ed In The U.S. Really That Bad?
For several years we have heard commentators – political, economic and academic, as well as media – tell us that our education system, at all levels, is failing us. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act now before Congress, criticism has shifted from how we allowed our children to be “left behind” to the many failures of higher education itself.
Critics allege a wholesale inability to:
- Contain costs;
- Retain and graduate students (ideally within four years);
- Teach the right subjects or, in the opinion of some, promote any new learning at all.
To “correct” such performance it is contended that government – state and federal – must do more to hold higher education accountable. Critics on the political left and right may argue against the autonomy of institutions, especially with $160 billion in tax-funded financial aid at stake.
To support their concerns, these critics note that:
- The U.S. is in a free fall relative to global rankings of countries with a high percentage of college graduates in the workforce. This is an oft-cited reason for President Obama’s call for action;
- The 500% increase in the cost of degree attainment over 30 years;
- Fewer than 40% of entering students finish an undergraduate degree in four years, and more than 20% never finish;
- 20% of entering students require some form of remediation;
- Employers do not see recent graduates as “work ready” when hired. A February Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll of business leaders found that only one-third felt higher education institutions were preparing students with the skills and competencies businesses need.
There can be no doubt that these statistics reflect real problems which must be addressed. Yet, how is it that Henry Lee Allen, writing in the Fall 2002 issue of the NEA Higher Education Journal, was able to go unchallenged when he stated that, “Higher education represents this nation’s greatest intangible legacy; no other society in the history of the world has ever established a system of post-secondary education as large, productive and diverse as ours…”? Have we lost all of this in just twelve years?
Perhaps a closer look is warranted. After all –
- There is only one nation with a higher percentage of its citizens enrolled in some form of higher education than ours (South Korea). The U.S. has over 21 million in degree programs, with many more in continuing education or professional credential offerings, for which no statistics are collected.
- The U.S. stands alone in regards to the diversity of higher education offerings: public, private (non-profit and proprietary), two-year, four-year, graduate, online, research, religious and profession-specific providers. In total the U.S. has nearly 8,300 degree and non-degree granting institutions recognized by the Council on Higher Education Accreditation or the U.S. Department of Education.
- The U.S. continues to dominate in world rankings and number of Nobel laureates (254). Whether conducted by U.S. News, Times Higher Education (UK), or China’s Jiao Tung University, the number one university continues to be from the U.S. (even if all do not agree as to which one). Seven others were included within the “Top 10” this year as well.
And it isn’t just the elite schools that are worthy to note. Our community college system is functioning well on all metrics – it is inexpensive and providing accessible skills needed for employment.
- In 2013, a record 820,000 international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities, a 40% increase over ten years!
- Domestically, new graduates are seeing starting annual salaries in the mid 40s. This is not outstanding, but it is much higher than for those without a degree and slightly above the 2012 “national average wage” as reported in the Social Security Administration. Unemployment rates for those with a degree have remained below 5% throughout The Great Recession.
Additionally, we continue to rely on university-based research to create new knowledge and to drive our economic competitiveness. An estimated 80% of U.S. business and industry is impacted in some way by these findings.
If U.S. higher education is so flawed, why does the rest of the world, as well as many of our own employers, continue to value it so highly? Is the problem with institutional performance or is there more to the story?
Starting with the often referenced global rankings, perhaps the U.S. is not “falling” as much as other institutions are rising.
Consider, after World War II, the U.S. was dominant in the percentage of workers with a degree, thanks to the GI Bill. Other countries, devastated by the war, lacked the resources to invest in education. Today, that has changed. According to UNESCO, eight nations now spend a larger percentage of their GDP on higher education than does the U.S. Might declining financial support (state funding has fallen by 10% or more in the past five years) explain some of the difference in rankings?
As for the cost issue, tuition has risen to a point that it is a barrier to degree attainment for many. But, to reduce costs, we need to understand why it has reached such high levels. It is hard to believe that thousands of colleges and universities have all been so “mismanaged,” as some contend, as to be responsible for the upward spiral in tuition.
With 70% of those in college attending public institutions, we can immediately see that political decisions are a factor. As state legislatures have cut support (10.2% on average, nationally) in every state, institutions have had to reduce offerings, cap enrollments, raise tuition and/or fees, or embrace some combination of these actions. Thus, increased costs for students may have less to do with issues of campus management than with replacing lost support.
Private institutions have also faced financial loss. Revenues from investments and endowments fell dramatically during the recession and have yet to return to pre-2008 levels.
In both instances, losses occurred at the same time that schools faced the growing cost of regulatory compliance, and students were feeling the impact of falling income. In fact, a major reason for the record student debt is the fact that many students needed their loan proceeds to live on. The state of the economy and the job market may have as much to do with education debt as tuition.
On the regulatory front, the U.S. Department of Education has issued 200 new regulations since the federal Higher Education Act was last reauthorized in 2008. Many more are on the horizon. Each requires analysis, compliance and, in many cases, ongoing monitoring. Little wonder that administrative hiring has out-paced that of faculty.
Retention and graduation rates do need to improve. Yet, there are forces at work that are beyond the academy’s control. For instance, to deal with the growing cost of college attendance, more students work and attend school part-time. This, in turn, increases time to completion and places demands on students’ time and attention that cause many them to drop out altogether.
The need for remediation introduces another reason for attrition and a longer path to completion. Students required to re-engage with topics of prior difficulty (typically mathematics and/or composition) must deal with low self-confidence, embarrassment, and potentially financial problems, as such coursework does not qualify for financial aid. While the need for remediation is a serious problem for higher education, it is not one of its making.
Then there is the “work readiness” issue. Employer dissatisfaction with new graduates seems to vary both by school of origin and by subject area/industry. Graduates in STEM disciplines, cybersecurity, nanotechnology, accounting, and some areas of business are facing little difficulty in finding employment. On the other hand, those without majors, those graduating from the liberal arts, law and from lesser known institutions, are having greater difficulty. We must ask whether this is due to supply and demand factors in the marketplace, or to a belief that colleges do a poorer job of preparing students in one discipline area than another.
There is much about American higher education that needs to change. This article should not be read as a defense of the status quo. Rather, it is an acknowledgment of the many challenges and changes now underway and an attempt to present a more balanced picture than that typically painted by pundits.
Our tertiary system of education continues to be extraordinary. It provides the brain power and research needed to compete in an increasingly global economy. Yes, we need to make changes, a lot of them, and quickly if we are to maintain a position of prominence in both higher education and economic performance. Whether we can reclaim our post-WWII standing is questionable, given the current lack of political agreement or will.
Nonetheless, dynamics now in play can be seen as positive. There is broad awareness that our economy needs a more educated workforce and that there is a clear connection between education and economic well-being for individuals and the nation. The providers of the needed education are deeply engaged in debate and experimentation attempting to find answers.
Contrary to public perception, American colleges and universities are changing. They are embracing new forms of instruction (MOOCS and competency-based models are but the latest) and business practice. As a society, ours is one that can be overly self-critical. It is also one that has shown that it can rise to a challenge.