U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio is one half of the legislative duo who recently introduced a bill designed to ease the pain of repaying college costs by bringing in Wall Street. Yet, this is another typical Beltway response — treat the symptom with a legislative Band Aid when what is needed is a major surgery on the entire structure of higher education to cut the exorbitant cost of college. Until we address the root cause of the problem, students will continue to graduate with big debts that not only burden them, but create a drag on the economy as a whole, as I explained in my previous blog.
So instead of dreaming up the kind of new loan programs that Senator Rubio is backing — what we need is to rethink the structure and purpose of higher education. As part of that rethinking we can also come up with fresh approaches to reducing tuition and making college more affordable — the real solution to cutting and ideally eliminating onerous student debt.
We have come to view a college education as a gateway to employment. It has worked in the past but nowadays more than half — 53 percent — of those who graduated in 2012 find themselves unemployed or underemployed. As if that didn’t spell trouble enough, many recent graduates have ample debt to go with their diplomas. It bears repeating, too, that 65 percent of today’s grade school students will end up in jobs that have not yet been invented.
With this backdrop in mind, we need to reconsider the true goal of education. Is it to build up an educational system or to have students actually learn something? The goal should of course be to have students learn something, acquire skills and learn how to teach themselves, but this is not happening as effectively or efficiently as it should.
Consider the fact that — even in a sluggish economy — the U.S. had more than 3 million job vacancies, as reported in November 2012 by <em>60 Minutes</em>. The reason for all these unfilled jobs is that employers do not find enough workers with the right skills, even with millions of Americans looking for work.
The irony, then, is that we’ve got companies in high-tech regions like Silicon Valley, including Facebook and Google, who are clamoring for employees — even offering perks like housekeeping meals, babysitting, dry cleaning and take-home dinners in addition to hefty salaries to lure qualified workers.
This hole in the job market can be traced to the lack of strategic thinking by our leaders and misplaced priorities at colleges and universities. Professors get tenure, which essentially guarantees them lifelong job security, not necessarily because they are good teachers but because of their research and publications. A university views itself first and foremost as a place for intellectual and social experiences. Post-graduation employment for students is a secondary consideration. However, pupils generally select colleges based on how those institutions will help them get jobs; the intellectual experience they’ll have is more of a secondary consideration. This situation underscores something of a pedagogical paradox in what students and society expect from a college education and what it actually delivers.
In order to address this paradox, we must as a society start asking questions like: Why do students need four years of college to earn a bachelor’s degree? Why can’t the same proficiency be accomplished in two or three years (at least in certain fields)? Why do universities emphasize research while undergraduate students — the bulk of higher education pupils — want to get prepared for jobs? What happens to those whose aptitude is to work with their hands and machines and who would prefer practical experience, rather than academic theories? Why do doctors need to spend eight years on higher education after high school, instead of, say, five, before they can practice their profession? Volumes could be written to address these and other such questions — and perhaps should be so that we can move beyond our century-old mindset about how we educate our students.
Within the context of a broader rethinking we can consider more specific possibilities, such as having each bachelor’s degree candidate spend two out of four years away from campus; one year as an intern or apprentice with a potential employer and a second year studying abroad and in an internship in a state capital or Washington, D.C. This approach can result in doubling college capacity (from four to two years on campus classes) thus allowing them to double their enrollment. This can result in reduced tuition by at least 40 percent, if not 50 percent.
Studying abroad will help young students appreciate the lifestyle we have as Americans. It will also help them experience how other people live and think, and learn about other cultures and their practices. This experience is vital in this inter-connected world. Internships in D.C. or state capitals would help foster civic engagement.
Offering more online courses is another good place to start in reducing tuition cost. General education courses with a hundred or more students that have almost no student-teacher interaction could be just as effectively taught online. By converting at least 20 percent of those classes to online courses we could save more than $90 billion annually. Such an approach can also free up expensive real estate on campus, improve productivity and significantly increase the size of the student population — and with tens of thousands of additional students, system-wide tuition costs can be lowered.
As things stand, only 27 cents of every higher-education dollar is spent on instruction, which is sort of like giving money to a stockbroker who takes out 73 cents of every dollar and investing only 27 cents. This is further evidence that our system of higher education needs transformation. We need to match students’ interests, skill sets and passions with programs that position them for happy and productive careers — without mountains of debt.
* This blog is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Beltway Beast: A Challenge to Our Democracy.