By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Is college worth the cost, is the current model sustainable, and how can colleges and universities more effectively meet state and student needs?
Those are questions that policymakers, along with colleges and universities, must answer in a world that can change a lot in four years.
On Monday, Clint Vogus, an Arkansas State University business instructor, and Dr. Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, told legislators that college doesn’t provide the same value it once did. Tuition costs have increased, and so has student debt, to $1.2 trillion nationally, making it the second largest source of consumer debt after home mortgages.
How big is the student debt problem? Americans, including the many who did not graduate, owe more in student debt than they do in credit card debt. Lindsay said giving students more scholarships won’t solve the problem. In fact, it will make it worse because the more government dollars that come into the system, the more colleges and universities raise the price.
The two were testifying before the Legislative Task Force to Study the Realignment of Higher Education, one of many groups appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislators. Those groups exist to guide policy changes, to respond to changes that are already occurring, or just to ride the wave in education, health care, highways and prisons.
Vogus and Lindsay argued that despite the rising costs, a college education isn’t worth what it used to be for students or the state. Too many degree plans don’t lead to good jobs, and too many needs in the workforce aren’t being filled. Surveys indicate that students are studying less but earning a lot more A’s, and it’s not because they’ve become smarter. We’re told that, even if the world changes, college is supposed to make students more well-rounded and teach lifelong critical thinking and reasoning skills. But a 2011 report, “Academically Adrift,” found that’s often not the case. As measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, 36 percent of college grads didn’t show any improvement in those areas after four years of college.
Dr. Chuck Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System, defended the value of a college education as “still the greatest investment I’ve ever made in my entire life or ever will make in my entire life.” He pointed out that college graduates as a group make much higher incomes, are less likely to be incarcerated or be dependent on food stamps, and even live longer than those whose education stopped after high school.
In that respect, the numbers are clear, but the cause and effect relationship is not. Do college graduates earn more money because they have a degree? Or is it because they’re more likely to come from wealthier, educated families? In other words, did college put them on second base, or were they born there?
Progress will come slowly in this area, but it may actually come. A consensus has developed that college is too expensive and that it’s not meeting workforce needs. Vogus proposed a 90-hour degree that could be completed in three years. His employer, Arkansas State University, recently announced a three-year plan, though it relies on summer school and doesn’t reduce the required hours. Lindsay said that Texas A&M – Commerce responded to a challenge by former Gov. Rick Perry to offer a $10,000 degree by creating one that costs not much more, in part by offering most of the first two years of classes online.
If workforce needs don’t change colleges and universities, then economics might. State dollars are flat. Bain and Company, a management consulting firm, says that 43 percent of colleges and universities nationwide spend more than they can afford. The 14-17-year-old demographic that feeds colleges and universities isn’t growing. And the word is out that a college degree is not a guaranteed route to a better job.
Meanwhile, students have other choices. For $12,000, they can learn computer coding in 12 weeks of intensive training at The Iron Yard, a chain of private schools with a location in Little Rock.
In less than three months, they’ll be qualified for a very good job. They won’t have the college experiences that are meant to make them more well-rounded. But then, they can do that on their own time, independent of taxpayers, using the money they’re making.