Is today’s high cost, often low value college experience something to love?

“Because your degree was your second love at UNT…” reads a Valentine’s Day card recently sent to alumni by the University of North Texas.  While designed to conjure warm, fuzzy images of past college experiences, this card, sent by the Division of Advancement, also reminds why savvy education consumers increasingly question the cost and value of today’s higher education experience.

Throughout both K-12 and higher education, the education industry promotes a “blank-should-be-fun” culture with blank often-filled using school, college, work, life, etc.  Pesky truths, however, not only challenge the “fun,” but offer no escape from far different scenarios like massive student debt, healthy under- or unemployment rates and the ugly reality that everyone’s need for a college education is a self-interested myth perpetrated by colleges, universities and a supporting cast of educratic-related cronies.

A mountain range of debt

Never mind leaving today’s younger generations a mountain of debt. We’re leaving them a whole damn mountain range!

The Federal Reserve puts student debt at $1.3 trillion which, per a clock developed by MarketWatch, grows an estimated $2,726.27 every second. Broken down, the class of 2015 graduated with average student debt of $35,051.

But that’s not all. Our national debt now tops $19 trillion and Texas’ local debt load (cities, counties, school districts, etc.) exceeds $225 billion, second only to California. Auto loans, credit cards and other loans combine to add another $2 trillion of household debt to the mix.

The student debt racket

Mary Clare Reim, a research associate at the Heritage Foundation, notes that despite numerous influencing factors, rising student debt is closely tied to the seemingly unending stream of students easily accessing federal student loans. This helps not only in growing university admission numbers, but also with “incentivizing universities to raise their tuition rates indefinitely with little accountability to their students.”

Flush with new tuition dollars, colleges and universities then use the funds to increase administrative staff sizes. In Our Bloated Universities, Reim writes:

This problem known as “administrative bloat” plagues most universities in the country. A report from the Goldwater Institute found that, “between 1993 and 2007, the number of full-time administrators per 100 students at America’s leading universities grew by 39 percent, while the number of employees engaged in teaching, research or service grew by only 18 percent.”  Notably, the study also found that, “In 2007, it took 13.1 more employees to educate the same number of students than it did in 1993.” The reality is that at American universities’ faculty make up less than half of all employees.

Increased personnel along with the programs and activities they spawn are just the beginning. Growing enrollment numbers also help justify additional infrastructure expenses from classrooms to dorms to sometimes lavish amenity-related facilities like recreational centers, student unions and/or stadiums.

Understanding causes is key to finding solutions

Addressing tuition hyperinflation requires understanding its causes.  Writing of how States Can Learn from Texas’s Response to Tuition Hyperinflation, SeeThruEdu.com’s  Mario Guerra notes:

Public opinion on the affordability of a college education is understandable, given how fast tuition prices have increased in such a short period of time. National prices in college tuition have increased 45 percent over the past decade, whereas household income has declined by 7 percent within the same time frame. Tuitions are steadily increasing year after year, despite the adverse effects these tuition hikes have on students. After evaluating these statistics, it is evident that institutions of higher learning need to spend more time addressing their students’ financial complications.

The Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program was created in response to then Gov. Rick Perry’s 2011 challenge for Texas higher education institutions to develop a $10,000 bachelor’s degree. Guerra describes the program, a joint venture of the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, South Texas College, Texas A&M University–Commerce and the College for All Texans Foundation, as such:

This is a competency-based degree program, which offers a seven-week flat-rate fee in order to help students earn their degree at an affordable price, and to ensure that students get to keep course credits they have already earned. The program costs $750 for each seven-week period of enrollment, and the price of a 120-hour degree is between $7000 and $14,000. This is an affordable alternative to current prices that institutions of higher learning in the state of Texas offer. In addition to its impressive commitment to providing Texas students with an affordable alternative to traditional degree programs, the Texas Affordable Baccalaureate Program wants to ensure that at least 80 percent of matriculating students complete the program, maintain an annual retention rate of at least 80 percent, and achieve sustainability by the fifth year of the program’s implementation.

Major economic benefit could result as this program is expanded in Texas and emulated on a national scale. Meanwhile, other important issues are noteworthy as the higher education reform efforts continue.

  • Graduates with degrees of no marketable value and students themselves lacking in basic workforce-ready skills are struggling.  The higher education industry must accept some degree of culpability for students with exceptionally useless degrees and unexceptional abilities.
  • Inferior outcomes sometimes stem from weak collegiate curricula too often dumbed-down to meet the capabilities of ill-prepared high school graduates. This comes in part from shuffling students into college when they would be better served with other types of vocational or technical training.
  • Public schools promote a culture that now conditions parents how “someone else” is always there to finance their child’s education – whether via grants, scholarships or payment-deferred student loans. How is a high school counselor an appropriate party to promote a five- or six-figure debt load destined to last for years?
  • Can the same not be asked of college and university financial aid departments? And by virtue of their position, these departments are often mistakenly viewed as positions of trust, positions tasked with helping to ensure students’ success. Peddling a worthless degree and future filled with debt hardly fits that bill. Make no mistake of where loyalty and interests lie. It’s not about education, it’s strictly business.
  • Despite K-12 and higher education strongly contributing to this current financial mayhem, personal responsibility ultimately remains the bottom line as students, parents or other engaged adults must recognize the potential long-term consequences and incorporate realistic cost-benefit analysis into their counsel.

While the debate rages, universities and colleges appear determined to ride this financial gravy train for every mile possible. Meantime, the coming years are likely to find former student passengers reminiscing on what they loathed rather than loved about their college experience.

Lou Ann Anderson is an information activist.  A former contributor at Watchdog Arena and Raging Elephants Radio, she writes and speaks on a variety of public policy topics. She additionally addresses the growing issue of probate abuse as the Creator and Online Producer at Estate of Denial®, a web site that “shines light on the dark side of estate management” by providing news, analysis and commentary regarding probate corruption and estate abuse cases. Lou Ann’s columns can also be found at Examiner.com.

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