College for All? Please….

By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy Institute

In the past few weeks I have read opeds and articles from the Washington Post’s Robert Samuelson (May 27: It’s Time to Drop the College-For-All Crusade), former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich (May 18: The Commencement Address That Won’t Be Given), Mui and Khim in the Post (May 28: College Dropouts Have Debt But No Degree), and Michelle Asha Cooper of the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) (May 23: What’s That Degree Really Worth). Other articles, like “The Chronicle’s Can We Overproduce a Degree?” and “A Graduate Student With $88,000 in Student Loans Speaks Out About College Debt have played into this blog.

There is (finally) surfacing a critical response to the nation’s drive for more higher education. I’ve written about this countless times: we are producing more widgets without a sense of why or how. And we are doing these when we clearly know that (a) student debt is far too high even for the ROI of a college education, and (b) unemployment is at an all time high for individuals with BAs and higher.

This is a complex issue and I understand that oversimplifying it is not necessarily a prudent thing to do. But the conversation must happen, and people beyond myself are starting to post in highly-regarded circles.

The easy argument is that the ROI of a degree far outweighs the cost of attending college. Michelle Asha Coooper of IHEP notes the $1 million more in earnings during a lifetime” factoid that has been seen on far too many powerpoints in the last decade (I know, I used to use it, too, but I hung it up years back). I don’t even believe this fact anymore, because it is a gross average that does not include unemployment and other important data. And we know this: the returns to an AA and BA are dropping. The BA is completely flatlined for the past decade. Only professional degrees are increasing their earning (and yes, those are many of the 1 percents of the economy).

The second easiest argument is that unemployment is far lower for BAs than other, lower degrees. This is true, but it is far higher than it has ever been. Yes, we have a brutal economy. But even when it returns, the unemployment rate of BA graduates will be higher than any time in history. And we aren’t even talking about whether these graduates are working in their fields. Most are not. Most get jobs where they can. And that’s a whole lot of waste of investment.

On May 27th, Robert Samuelson of the Post wrote:

“The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though high erducation’s expansion also ransk as one of America’s great postwar triumphs.”

He’s correct. We are pushing more for all students to have some postsecondary credential. In one respect, that’s fine as long as we have an incredibly broad view of postsecondary education. If we are simply talking about associates, bachelors degrees, and higher, we completely miss this boat, because most of the jobs will be in areas that do not require much more than a certificate or an AA at best. Food services, health care services (but not doctors) are at the core of our growth. Why? We eat a lot, we out more than ever before, and we’re getting older (and fatter). Go figure. I didn’t need a degree in economics for that conclusion, which is buttressed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, I may add.

More succinctly, Berkeley’s Robert Reich opens his faux commencement address this way:

Members of the Class of 2012,

As a former secretary of labor and current professor, I feel I owe it to you to tell you the truth about the pieces of parchment you’re picking up today.

You’re f*cked.

I didn’t say it (thought it): the former Labor Secretary said it. He’s right, too. He goes on to explain that the new grads are completing with former grads who are also still looking for jobs. So you aren’t just competing with your fellow graduates; you are competing with who graduated last year, and the year before. He also notes that earning for recent graduates is 4.6 percent lower than in 2007. He states simply:

“This parchment isn’t as valuable as it once was.”

So, the ROI is diminished, but the cost of higher education continues to soar with absolutely no end in sight.

Mui and Khimm, in their May 28th piece, cited the 30 percent of college students who dropped out without a degree but burdened with a student loan. And the Hunter College Student who has no degree but $88,000 in debt strikes a chord with many, although Dr. Cooper’s assessment that “too many of these students are not making the best choices to optimize this investment” rings true. But who is there to help them make good choices? Every Governor; every legislator; and every philanthropist is saying you need a college degree. So what is a high schooler to think? I need to go to college, even if I don’t want to and I have no fricken idea of what I want to do?

For the affluent, they have disposable income to let their children “find themselves” through a wonderful four-year residential experience. But those days are quickly fading for those in the 95 percent. Even four-year public residential experiences are far too expensive for the ROI. This isn’t about who has savings and how doesn’t: the cost is the same!!! You still pay $100,000 for a public education these days, and in 20 years, that will be $150,000—adjusted for inflation!

Samuelson says we’ve dumbed down college and that fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Guess what? He’s right again. I can show you the data.

We can’t afford to keep working within an outdated, outmoded process we call higher education that has only limited connections with the domestic and global markets. It’s absolutely nuts—and I argue imprudent—for people to argue for more higher education without the insistence that we link higher education to the workforce (gainful employment? Kind of…) and, yes, get this: we need to start limiting access to certain types of degrees and certain occupations. Yes, rationing degrees. We shouldn’t be producing 3 million accountants for 1 million jobs, nor should we over produce teachers by a factor of 3 (look around and see how many “teachers” are either unemployed or working your local Walmart).

We have done a huge disservice by almost insisting that you must go to college, when we know it isn’t necessarily about going to college, it is about going to the “right” college for the “right” degree. And only a small portion of our society—those who live on the upper echelon of our income ladder—really get those choices. The rest of us just try and make it work.

I’ll be one of those paying off $300,000 in public tuition, fees, and room and board over the next two decades (if I am lucky) because I, too, have been sucked in to this rhetorical vortex. Why? Because we all want the best for our children. We will buy them SAT/ACT coaches (OK, I didn’t do that, but it’s gross how many people do it), and even enroll our kids into bogus “National Honor Societies,” which are really a for-profit scam to make money. This is the politics of fear, my friends. We are using fear to create more debt on the backs of students and their families. Mortgaging homes and futures to pay costs that are inexplicably high.

I never thought I’d say this, but…. I agree with Texas Governor Rick Perry. We need a $10,000 degree. We need to further the work on stackable certificates, because that’s mostly what we need. As an employer, the most important thing I look for on a resume is what skill sets a candidate has. Do they know Microsoft Word, Excel, and Powerpoint? Or do they also know InDesign, SPSS, and SAS? Show me your skills, and I’ll give you a job. What does the BA really mean? Half of them can’t write worth…, well, you complete the sentence.

It’s ToolTime, readers. Status quo just isn’t cutting it. Here are some thoughts:

  • If we really want to follow the rhetoric, let’s make the first two years of college free for those at 200 percent of the poverty level (about $46,000 for a family of four), and let’s put a 50 percent cap on the cost up to 400 times the poverty limit ($92,000). All of this, of course, requires us to ensure that we, as a nation, get our ROI.
  • Public elementary and secondary education in America is FREE. So let’s ensure that everyone comes out “college ready.” If they aren’t, they don’t go to college. I don’t care about affirmative action and other pieces: if we can’t get them ready in the first 13 years, we won’t get them ready in 1!!!  So we need to put programs in place to ensure that we educate ALL students at a high level. And if you don’t produce in year 1, I’m sorry, but you’re out. At least out of the full subsidy.
  • It’s time to start punishing colleges and universities for being too expensive. “What about the Free Market, Scott?” What free market? There isn’t one as long as have Pell Grants driving costs. Simply put: if your tuition and fees are over $50k/year, you’re gaming the system. Sure, full pays from rich people…. I don’t have a problem with that, but I do have a problem with middle-income earners giving up their retirement to put their snotty kids through school who have no idea of the sacrifice.
  • But it isn’t just about them; it is all higher education. Let’s look to Perry’s $10,000 degree and see if we can find any promise. Free online education, for one. “But, Dr. Swail, not all people learn well online.” Then they should get better at it. My son has ADHD and he did fabulous in an online geometry course one summer. Let’s not make stereotypes that are not necessarily true. Hell, online education has fostered more access to education, especially for people with disabilities, than anything else in our lifetime. It is a big piece of the education future. Embrace it.

There is more, and I could go on. I will in my upcoming book, “The Higher Education Arms Race,” but you’ll have to wait.

Your weekend assignment? Read the articles I posted. They are interesting. Even fun. And then let me hear your thoughts.

Have a great one.


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