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?

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