In 1940, not even one in 20 Americans had a college degree. Now it's better than one in four. Fueled by a flood of American soldiers returning from World War II's European and Pacific theaters, the GI Bill sparked an explosion in college enrollment that continues to this day.
Higher education boosts productivity and pay. The earnings gap between those with and those without a college degree is dramatic. According to the Census Bureau, individuals 25 or older with bachelor's degrees on average earned nearly $22,000 per year (80 percent) more than those with only high school diplomas.
But what does college cost? College pricing rivals health care in opacity. Most students receive some form of "aid." Just as in buying a car, few pay the "manufacturer's suggested retail price." Bloomberg Businessweek reports that 94 percent of students in New York private colleges and universities receive some form of financial aid. Even in public colleges, two-thirds receive aid (in addition to the outright state support to the institution).
The College Board conducts an annual survey and reports that published tuition grew 52 percent from 1996-97 to 2011-12 while tuition net of aid (including federal tax credits) rose 22 percent over the period, suggesting that colleges and universities are increasing the "sticker price" at the same time that aid is also rising. Using the College Board's figures on net tuition and fees, students beginning four-year degrees in 2011 will pay an average of $52,000 in tuition over four years at private schools and about $10,000 at public schools. Many pay more and many pay less, of course. Consider, too, the cost of room and board-$35,000 to 40,000 more-and foregone earnings.
Is college worth it? The Great Recession fostered the worst job market in living memory, leading many recent grads to ask whether the hard work, missed opportunities and cost would pay off. More than half of graduates leave college with debt-debt that can't be erased even in bankruptcy. Failing to find a job, many "double down" by attending graduate school and incurring yet more debt. Others work at jobs they could have gotten without a degree.
Should everyone go to college? Debates on major issues are sponsored by a group called "Intelligence Squared" and broadcast on National Public Radio. One year ago, they organized a debate on the proposition "Too many kids go to college." Sparked by a provocative article by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, the panelists (Murray included) agreed on several key points. First, everyone needs some education and training after high school. Second, the quality of higher education varies dramatically, and some degrees are more valuable than others. Many graduates of public and private schools (not just the for-profits) have little to show for their efforts and debt burden. But not all debaters agreed with Murray's thesis that the traditional bachelor's degree is often a waste of money and time.
Is the bachelor's degree a dinosaur? Those of us in the hiring business know that a traditional bachelor's degree tells us little about a job candidate. Some academic disciplines require four years or more to achieve mastery. Others pad their curricula with redundant courses. The four-year standard leaves some students with too much time and others with too little. A talented intern at the Center for Governmental Research filled her senior year with cooking classes (which she enjoyed) because she'd fulfilled all other requirements for graduation.
Nor does a college degree guarantee anything about an individual's ability to write a coherent sentence or express a well-argued position. Students are presented with a smorgasbord of course offerings, many designed to be popular, thus propping up department enrollments. As a former college professor, I know that many-most?-students are just going through the motions, seeking only the grade and the diploma.
Online education may be the meteor that renders the bachelor's degree extinct. Much of what is offered online is dull and unimaginative, but not all. One of the most exciting innovations in higher education comes from Stanford. Coursera (www.coursera.org) offers 200 courses from some of the nation's leading academics at 33 universities. Courses include regular assignments and assessments. Freed from the constraint of traditional 50-minute or 75-minute class schedules, faculty can divide course material into more logical segments and make innovative use of video and interactive tools. Invest 20 minutes listening to Daphne Koller, one of Coursera's founders, in her TED Talk on this venture at www.ted.com.
Online education can't replace some of what we value in the college experience. Yet a large share of college content is already delivered in mass settings, often badly. If the Internet can deliver one-third to one-half of college course content in new and exciting ways-and save considerable money in the process-then the goal of improving access to education and the quality of education for all of our citizens demands that we pursue it.
And why should a one-size-fits-all bachelor's degree be the standard? The information technology field is blazing new trails: For many employers, a B.S. in computer science means less than the Microsoft Certified IT Professional designation, Project Management Professional certification or Certified Information Systems Security Professional accreditation. Instead of a B.A. in business administration, obtained simply by having passed courses of unknown quality, why not a series of certifications confirming that the job candidate knows the material according to an accepted national standard?
This approach can't work in all disciplines, however-and there will always be a place for the residential college experience.
Higher education has an obligation to deliver more consistent quality at a defensible price. Innovations like Coursera will continue to challenge the status quo, improving the return on our education investment and opening up higher education to many who can't afford the time or money now required by the traditional model.
Kent Gardner is chief economist and chief research officer of the Center for Governmental Research Inc.10/19/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.