Rising higher education costs are somewhat driven by a tendency for colleges to be ranked by how much they “invest” in infrastructure for students and other endeavors. Although President Obama’s best value ranking system, which considers factors like tuition, graduation rates, percentage of lower-income students, and earnings after graduation, might counteract the negative effects of other ranking systems that are used to sell schools to students, it will probably do little. After all, ranking systems exist for advertisement, not quality control.
Unfortunately, Obama’s system has the potential to produce bad results, e.g. by trying to compare earnings across a whole range of disciplines, thereby inflating the value of engineering schools and understating the value of teaching colleges, or by failing to address the issue of nontraditional students, thus community colleges might be poorly ranked as compared to traditional four year colleges. Meanwhile, education is not simply about salary as many low yielding disciplines are essential to our society, which is part of a broader problem with our educational system and economy. In addition, students that are more affluent can often use their family backgrounds to make a degree more valuable, so schools already attracting affluent individuals will most likely see an automatic boost. Moreover, Obama’s “solution,” even if it properly ranks colleges, will provide very little incentive for schools to suppress prices.
The overall problem of the higher education bubble is too much infrastructure. Our higher education system has continually expanded over the past few decades and that growing beast must be feed. Excess capacity, i.e. too many schools offering too many degrees for too many students in need of too many of increasingly higher paying jobs with ballooning college debt cannot be sustained indefinitely. In fact, this bubble would have likely collapsed years ago had the government found a solution to the higher education paradox instead of maintaining it.
On the other hand, people need an education to have a chance at climbing the socioeconomic ladder. Unfortunately, as more and more individuals acquire degrees, the value of those decrees goes down, i.e. employers can find someone to do the work of a college graduate for the pay of a high school graduate while the degree no longer becomes an advantage for the disadvantaged. Clearly, not all degree programs are equal in their educational or monetary value while our economy also tends to undervalue the true benefit of certain degrees by failing to recognize the broader and long-term influence these degree holders have on society. As such, both employers and schools need to recalibrate their thinking on education. Here are three ways on how we can do that:
1. Education should be about learning to learn. Instead of livelong learning, which continually costs money, diminishes the earnings of employees by taking them out of the economy, and perpetuates the higher education bubble, lifelong learning skills should be taught, so students can keep up with changes in our economy by learning on their own. Employers can help embrace this shift in thinking by recalibrating their hiring practices so they hire individuals with diverse, dynamic educational backgrounds. (Employers need to be more willing to take on training costs versus opportunity costs.) Government can help by favoring on-the-job-style training programs over degree or certificate programs held at schools when it comes to technical fields.
2. Schools need to recalibrate their notion of what a bachelor degree and an associate degree are in order to strip their programs of extraneous courses. Associate degrees tend to be more technician/ technical oriented, i.e. they lack the broader and diverse educational experience provided by a BA or BS course load. The bachelor degree course load is, however, supposed to provide students with a general knowledge base built on their even broader high school knowledge base, so they can adapt to whatever socioeconomical need arises. It is the master and doctorate level that are supposed to offer specialized education. Popular BA majors such as women’s students and environmental sciences should be master level disciplines build on degrees in psychology, sociology, political science, and history. Consequently, undergraduate schools need to refocus their efforts on core educational programs.
(Obviously, this sounds somewhat hypocritical coming from someone who has a BS in physics and psychology based politics, but physics provides a broad, highly applicable analytical skill set while psychology based politics is the combination of two traditional course loads for two broadly focused disciplines that resulted from a student creating the major. If students want to specialize while at the undergraduate level, schools should give them the opportunity to combine core educational programs, but schools should not be trying to accommodate every possible major.)
3. We should be focusing on the students, not the schools. Government can help drive students to core educational programs by offering greater aid when students reach their junior and senior years, which is the time when they have declared their majors. Success should be rewarded. When students reach their final years in college, they tend to struggle in terms of finding financial aid. To encourage more students to graduate and schools to help students reach their junior and senior years, which might not necessarily be year three or four, government and private donors should focus more attention on providing added financial aid for students on the verge of graduating.
(Readers feel should free to read more of Matthew Geiger’s thoughts on education by visiting his Yahoo! Contributor profile and searching out his many articles on the subject.)
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