Revolution, Not Reformation

By Dr. Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

Well, it’s another school year. Students around the country have started the sojourn back to their elementary, secondary, and postsecondary schools—the pathway to enlightenment for some; the tunnel of darkness for others.

This year’s return is framed by a political discussion that has raised the platform of education as a federal issue. Although we haven’t heard much from the GOP side of things, both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have made education a seminal platform of their respective campaigns. I have been fairly vocal in my opposition to their views of a “free” higher education, and I don’t think they have much political capital, even if either of them were to become president.

Yesterday, Lumina Foundation released a framework to discuss what is affordable for students and families with regard to higher education. This is a different twist compared to the constant “college is unaffordable” dialogue that we host most of the time (me included). The framework talks much about using a family’s disposable income as a gauge for expected family contribution (EFC). This makes sense, but as their own analysis shows, it does not provide near enough in one sense and arguably too much by another. According to Lumina, a family should contribute what can be saved over 10 years through a metric of 10 percent of disposable income. Makes sense, until you also want those families to save at least 10 percent of disposable income for retirement, and those families that do believe in tithing and supporting their church and community. All of the sudden, disposable income is goggled up pretty quickly. Even by Lumina numbers, that 10 percent, for a family of four earning $50,000/year, equates to $1,500/year in EFC. By the way, most families at that level do not save for college; they do not save for retirement; they do not have pension plans. They work.

NOTE: This is a significant issue because we are now seeing the first retirees who have student loan debts and we are the verge of the first generation that will have emptied their retirement accounts, if they had them at all, to pay for their children’s higher education.

Also according to Lumina, the net cost for a four-year public education is now $111,600, and according to their calculations, a family of four should provide up to $6,000 for that education. I’m not sure what federal or state plan will account for the remaining $105,600 of the cost. Pell sure won’t cover it. Institutional aid and discounting won’t help too much at public institutions. So it comes back to other family resources in the form of (a) student work; (b) student loans (sub and unsub); and family loans (PLUS and private loans). The Lumina report suggests that students can work 10 hours a week and hazards against more. In some cases, students need to work more, and most research suggests that students can work up to 20 hours a week with little or no impact on their studies. But they have to earn funds to assist with college.

Most Americans feel that a college education is important. The 2014 Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll found that 43 percent of those surveyed felt that college was important and an additional 48 percent stated “fairly important.” Only nine percent said it wasn’t that important (Interestingly, 58 percent of Democrats selected “very important” compared to 40 percent of Republicans). Regardless, these numbers resonate with many of us. College is important.

But this conversation comes back to three critical issues: who should go to college; where should they go; and who is going to pay for it.

The first and second questions invites a more lucid, honest, and robust discussion of why we need higher education. This sounds academic, if not elementary, but many of the pundits and analysts in our higher education/workforce arena have done a remarkably poor job of making the argument that we need more college. There is little evidence that we need more. We need better. We need more higher education that is connected to the workforce and societal needs. But we don’t need more degrees. We need more equity of opportunity, but we don’t need more BAs in the United States. We arguably need less. We need more people with stackable credentials and specific skills, many that can be trained in the workforce by companies and corporations and apprenticeships. And not all of these are blue collar positions. At EPI, we can take a smart, young person and teach them up to the talent of a person who has been master’s trained in research. I attended some pretty decent colleges in my time, but I learned most of my research in the field. I learned little about teaching in my undergrad; I learned almost everything in the classroom. The graduate level courses and experience helped, but nothing compared to working on projects with season veterans. So why did I need a Ph.D.? Because the field requires credentials before skills. I know great researchers with BAs that many Ph.D.s can’t hold a candle to. It isn’t about the degree. It’s about the skill. And we do a very poor job of linking higher education with the workforce, and it is costing us billions of dollars in excessive “training” at excessively expensive institutions.

The question of who will pay is important, as Lumina attests. But we cannot talk about affordability without talking about the cost centers. College is too expensive and we have finally reached a point where it just doesn’t make financial sense to a majority of students. Our economy is asking for $100,000+ for a degree from which their graduates will either be unemployed, not working in their field, or earning $30,000 to $40,000/year. Yes, some make a lot more. But most do not. An entry level teacher earns between $27,000 and $49,000/year with an average of $36,000. The higher numbers, by the way, are driven by cost of living in more expensive cities. College professors, by the way, average only $42,000/year. Many of those who will read this letter earn over $125,000, I’m guessing. You’re earning more than your colleagues (or are they earning more than you?).

But everything hinges around the cost centers. We cannot talk about affordability in a meaningful way without talking about controlling the escalating costs of higher education. The model has to change, which means the nature of higher education needs to change which requires that the nature of teaching and professorships needs to change. The immense weight of this system is simply too hefty for today and certainly tomorrow. We cannot make higher education affordable, regardless of anyone’s definition, without reducing—not just plateauing—the cost of a higher education. We don’t need an education for another four years of enhanced high school, unless, of course, it is seriously linked to a professional, like lawyering and doctoring, for instance.

Lumina is trying to tackle the problem from another angle because we can’t seem to tackle it from the cost angle. I give them credit for raising the issue of affordability, and their brief on this is required reading. But the other conversations have to continue. We have to be much more realistic about what this dialogue is about. What is it about?

Revolution, not reformation.

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