Sheepskin Shop Talk
Newcastle — The Economist recently carried an article on higher education in America, with the title: “Not What it Used to Be.” This is hardly a revelation. That education continues to deteriorate in quality and expectation has been expounded by many, including myself. Why beat the almost dead horse? Because hope springs eternal that somewhere, somehow, someday we might be able to improve one or two of the over-administered problems that are choking us; and that list is long.
The Higher Education Act of 1965 includes Title IV, which covers the administration of federal student financial aid programs. This program hasn’t worked out very well, despite the fact that the U. S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid with a staff of 1200 employees and a budget of $150 billion processes 21 million submissions a year. It is widely acknowledged that student debt so acquired has become oppressive, to the point where the loan burden discourages students from continuing with the education that the loan was supposed to facilitate. Less than half the students matriculating graduate in six or less years. How did this happen? The simple answer is that the cost of education, and thereby the onus of loans, is out of control. According to the Economist data, consumer prices have risen 400% since 1978; the cost of college tuition fees 1200%. It is not that colleges are supporting more and better instructors and courses; these phenomenal increases are the result of almost meaningless expansion of facilities (because of inter-institutional competition) and a bureaucracy building administrative population which has increased from a ratio of 50% (in 1978) to 100% of the teaching staff. These trends can be reversed, no?
A positive result of Title IV is that it provides a census of how many post secondary institutions are involved. There were about 6400 in 2000 and 6700 in 2010. It’s cheering that there hasn’t been much of an increase, but given that there are about 25,000 secondary schools in the country, 6700 post secondary schools seems superfluous. One post secondary for every four secondary schools? I suggest that there’s room for cutbacks here.
What has all this largesse achieved, aside from the non-graduation rate? Again from the Economist article: “A federal survey showed that the literacy of college-educated citizens declined between 1992 and 2003. Only a quarter were deemed proficient, defined as ‘using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals and to develop one’s knowledge and potential’. Almost a third of students these days do not take any courses that involve more than 40 pages of reading over an entire term.” Holy Mackerel! But reward for these loafers has increased. The 28% A’s given in 1960 is now 43%. Better grades for poorer performance; how quintessentially American.
The popular consensus is that without higher education you can’t get a good job, and all the expense will be compensated over the long haul. Tommyrot! Salaries for the educated professionals are no higher now than they were 35 years ago (adjusted for inflation), and now you’ve got all that debt. It is true that there is an increasing salary gap between secondary and post secondary educated workers, but this has happened because either we refuse to accept the value of a high school diploma, or because the high school student hasn’t learned anything while fingering his iPod. This too should change. My personal opinion is that a good high school education is all that is required for 90% of the jobs in this country (and we wouldn’t have so many lawyers).
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have arrived, as they surely would in the information age. These offer huge savings over traditional campus life, at the expense of campus life and personal relationships with teachers and other students. True, you get the top professor and not the teaching assistant, but flat screen communication is so..well, flat. My daughter is currently finishing up online requirements for another degree (her third) or some sort of technical certification. Now will she be able to get a real job? At least it only cost $5000.
I have a last suggestion, which I have made before. “Kids, default on those loans. About 30% of you already have. Bernanke and the Feds can print some more money and take care of this problem, just as he uses that approach to buy up default mortgages and hold back inevitable inflation. “ What’s a few more billion here or there? Ka-chunk, Ka-chunk.