American Elephants

The Higher Education Revolution Has Begun. by The Elephant's Child

Student loan debt has reportedly reached over $1 trillion. More than 50 % of college graduates cannot find jobs, and the default rate is increasing. At the national level, average college tuition costs over the last 25 years have increased 440 percent.  Nationwide, college tuition and student loan debt are increasing at unsustainable rates, and family incomes are declining.  For the first time college loan debt has passed credit card debt in totals. Graduates with big loans and unemployable majors in the humanities are in trouble.

But why the escalating cost? Teaching loads have fallen sharply — between 1988 and 2004, it is estimated that teaching loads fell 42 percent at research universities. At private liberal arts colleges that pride themselves on their attention to instruction, loads fell 32 percent. Faculty promotion and prestige are based in large part on publications that enhance a college’s reputation, and play a role in a college’s ranking in U.S. News Best Colleges. Teaching awards are apt to be a once-in-a-career thing.

Numbers of administrators and staff have grown faster than faculty numbers, and their salaries have increased significantly, a trend that continues in 2012. The median salary paid to a president of a doctoral degree-granting institution  was $325,000 by 2007. It is unsurprising that 57 percent of potential students nationally say that the higher education system no longer provides good value for the cost, and 75 percent say that college is unaffordable. That bodes well for meaningful reform.

In Texas, Governor Rick Perry has called for a four-year tuition freeze, outcomes-based funding, and increased fiscal transparency for students and their parents. And he renewed his challenge for public colleges and universities to develop degrees that cost no more than $10,000. There was, of course much scoffing,

But a year after the governor first issued his challenge, ten Texas public colleges and universities have launched or announced $10,000 degree programs. There is still much scoffing and suggestions that you get what you pay for. Last year, an important national study of collegiate learning, Academically Adrift, to measure what undergraduates actually learn in four years. Thirty-six percent showed small or non-existent gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning and writing skills after four years of college.

In 1961, a student studied about 24 hours a week. Today’s average student studies about 14 hours. Yet the proportion of A grades has increased dramatically, roughly 43 percent of all letter grades are As, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960. College students are studying less and getting better grades, but quality of learning is plummeting. Teachers are being asked to spend more hours in the classroom.

The usual response has been to try to lower the interest rate students pay on their loans, which just lets them borrow more, and allows college costs to go up. Glenn Reynolds has written about the education bubbleThe Revolution. Change is coming. What form it will take is yet unknown, but experimentation in the states is leading the way. Texas’s $10,000 degrees are only the first shots fired in the American people’s revolt against the higher education establishment. The revolution is just beginning.

ADDENDUM: I said above that more than 50% of new graduates have been unable to find jobs. That includes those who are working in retail, or in fast food, who may have a job, but not the job their degree might warrant, and those who got a degree for which there is no demand. I realize I may have created a false impression with what I wrote.


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