Is This the Shape of Things to Come?

With rampant college tuition costs and mounting levels of student debt, higher education is headed for some kind of reckoning.  The current state of being cannot and will not persist for much longer.

Some of the catalyst for our current situation was the G. I. Bill passed in the wake of the Second World War.  Intended to provide funding for college education and training for our servicemen returning from overseas, it allowed many to have access to higher education that would have otherwise been denied to them.  Not too shabby.   The ranks of the college-educated grew and the world of higher education naturally expanded.  As these newly educated individuals entered the work force, employers became used to more education, and the requirements for such jobs were adjusted.

A lot of other developments enter into all of this, including the expansion of the economy in the 1950s and the desire for the American educational system to become more robust in the face of challenges from the Soviets.  The Baby Boom didn’t help matters, either.

As more education was available, employers could be more demanding in who they hired, meaning that more people needed to get more education for the same jobs.  The process continued, further enshrining the “BA” as the new hallmark of success.  We are now well on our way to the Masters degree holding the same place.  The cost of these educational demands are catching up…with a vengeance.

In light of these realities, I see at least two-and-a-half possible futures:

1.  The government steps in–much more than it has already.  The kind of action needed would be far beyond simply offering more advantageous loan rates.  It would have to be a systemic revision of the entire higher education world.  Something more akin to the European model, I suspect.  All worthy candidates for “university” would have their education paid for or heavily subsidized.  The upside would be that Americans would now have equal access to education and be able to do so without the staggering load of debt many carry.  The downside would, of course, be a corresponding increase in taxes and the potential institution of complex entrance or vocational exams to determine eligibility for what students study.  Many would see that as both socialist and undemocratic.  Further, it would likely do little to alleviate the dilution of higher education and demands from employers to have ever-more-advanced degrees.

2.  The government does nothing and the cold hand of the market takes over.  In this model, college costs very quickly become so expensive that greater and greater numbers of people simply decide not to go.  In the short run, this is highly advantageous to those who can afford higher education.  Those who can’t will be left to take whatever jobs remain available to them.  Over time, however, employers will begin to notice that there are fewer and fewer “qualified” people available to fill their needs, and will likely lower educational requirements for various occupations.  Eventually this may return us to a pre-WWII balance of education and employment.  The upside to this is that in the long-run, things may even out and balance themselves.  No more loads of debt or an unsustainable educational behemoth churning out increasingly empty degrees.  The downside is that the short run will be horrible for many.  Moreover, this will lead to the closure of many institutions of higher learning and the progressive growth of educational elitism.  Knowledge will be concentrated in the hands of the few, and in a developing and technologically advancing world, this may leave the United States in a bit of a lurch.

2a.  More and more students do what they do now: attend community college before transferring to a traditional undergraduate institution and taking as many online courses as possible.  Over time, the rapidly expanding system of online education will chip away at the vast number of residential schools in the United States, leaving behind only those who have the most to offer at the most reasonable price or can adapt into become little “Universities of Phoenix.”  Residential four-year colleges will be the option of the few.  Online education for the many will expand to a point that one’s entire degree can be earned from home.  The advantages to this model include convenience and thrift.  The disadvantages include the virtual destruction of the residential system of education.  All of the advantages of life in community and mutual learning will slowly fade–an alarming development in what can already be seen as a rather individualistic culture.  Further, professorial tenure has the potential to become a thing of the past, with PhD-earners becoming educational “guns-for-hire,” paid piecemeal for each online course they teach.

This represents only a thumbnail sketch of my thoughts on these matters.  There are no doubt many more directions to take this discussion.  What do you say?

The Unsustainable Business of Education

College.  Higher education.  That thing you’re apparently supposed to do after graduating high school.  It has been my life these past 13 years, and by all indications will be so for the remainder of my days.  So, as you can imagine, I am rather concerned about its future.

Whether or not it was a compassionate move or a bold play for sympathy and votes, President Obama’s recent announcement about adjusting student loan repayment rules underlines an important reality.  College is expensive…and it will not be getting cheaper any time soon.  The average graduate of a four-year institution now owes nearly $25,000 in student loans.  College costs continue to increase, outpacing inflation and general cost of living expenses.  What this leaves us with is trouble.

What has caused all of this?  I don’t know, entirely.  But I do know that more people continue their education past high school than ever before.  For many students, it is simply assumed that college is the next step.  The problems with this are legion, and have had a ripple effect in American society.

1.  Students feel compelled to go to college, even if they have no idea what they want to do or whether they belong in college in the first place.  Not to mention that most high school seniors have little conception of the amounts of money they will have to borrow to accomplish their goal.

2.  More and more occupations are now requiring advanced degrees for jobs that did not require such high levels of education before.  This means more money must be spent to be qualified/trained for the same jobs.

3.  The vast assembly line that is higher education must churn out more and more degrees.  The effect is, I suspect, diluting the value and integrity of such degrees.  Does the BA of today represent the same academic vigor of the BA of fifty years ago?  I fear it does not.

4.  The hegemony of the “college educated” has the potential to create an unhealthy societal division between those who have gone to college and those who have not.  This works both ways, however:  not going to college and accumulating massive amounts debt means that those entering and apprenticing in the trades may actually end up better financially that their lettered peers.

5.  As noted above, the accumulation of vast amounts of debt continues to accelerate, moreso than even federal loans with relatively gentle terms can accommodate.  Parents and students themselves are forced to turn to private lenders with interest rates and repayment terms that can approach the predatory.  After graduation, even students that find reasonably well-paying jobs are saddled with monthly payments that preclude hopes of buying a first home or approaching anything near comfortable self-sufficiency.

Is a college education worth it?  I think so, but not for everyone.  If things continue they way they have been, I suspect it will be worth it for fewer and fewer in years to come.

There are ways out of this wilderness, and tomorrow I’ll propose two likely options.  One for the classical liberals who favor the free hand of the market, and the other for those in favor of a more interventionist government.  Until then, your thoughts?

The Cost of College Education: A Little Cheaper?

Many of us have heard about President Obama’s new plan to help graduated college students with the staggering load of college debt they tend to carry.  The income-based repayment options the government now offers-and will soon expand-will definitely make a dent in things.  It has the potential to reduce minimum payments from hundreds of dollars per month to much, much less.  But then, of course, this only applies to federal loans…not all those pesky private loans your financial aid officer talked you into.

Recently, however, I’ve become aware of a plan passed by the Congress back in 2007 that involves total loan FORGIVENESS after ten years of consistent payments.  Two catches:  1) you must work in the public sector or for a non-profit 501(c3) organization, and 2) this will only apply to federal-based loans.  But, if I’m understanding matters correctly, this can be linked with the income-based repayment plan, meaning that a person could theoretically have their loan payments reduced substantially and only make 120 of these diminished payments before they go away entirely.  I’ve heard of some having success with this program, and would encourage anyone saddled with more than they can pay to look into it.

Seems too good to be true?  I know.  It does.  But you don’t have to take my word for it:  check out the facts from the federal government itself, and Google away.  Tomorrow: some thoughts on where higher education is going…