Higher education is in trouble. Under siege by critics who argue that college students don’t learn anything and that professors have been teaching incorrectly and ineffectively. It has also become part of the ideological class war going on in the United States, with a college education-which used to be something to aspire toward-coming under fire for being “elitist.” Finally, critics argue that there is a higher education “bubble”: as college costs rise, students get less for their investment, leading to comparisons of higher education costs to subprime mortgages by no less an influential person as George Will.
These criticisms are easy to debunk:
- The idea that college educators are failing at teaching seems out of line with the fact that, for decades, colleges and universities have produced thousands of gifted scientists, engineers, educators, writers, physicians, and innovators who have cured diseases, solved social problems, and in other ways contributed to the growth of modern society.
- If aspiring towards the creation of a society in which the majority of its citizens are fully educated is “elitist,” we need to examine our social priorities a little bit more. Education is aimed at creating equality in society by offering opportunities to all people, and denying the value of education based on ideologically-driven and partisan arguments furthers class conflict rather than eliminates it. The fact is that education is a way to destroy forms of elitism, such as concentrated wealth and power. As Sir Francis Bacon said, “knowledge is power”-and it is on this presumption that the founders of the United States believed a democracy would work.
- The “bubble” hypothesis is shattered by some basic realities: economists point out that the difference between the lifetime earnings of someone with a college degree versus someone without one is substantial, and that those with college degrees are less likely to be unemployed. This means that a college degree is an asset that increases in value, unlike subprime mortgages, whose value was inflated to begin with.
Underfunding is the Real Problem
I do think there’s something wrong with higher education, but it’s not a “bubble,” poor teaching, or “elitism.” The problem is the underfunding of public colleges and universities, which shuts out lower income students and forces all students to take on larger amounts of student loan debt. A recent report issued by Sterling Partners and Bain and Company argues that 1/3 of all colleges are “on a financially unsustainable path” and overspend past their budgets. The study finds that, on average, university debt has grown 12% per year, outpacing instruction-related expenses even though the current economic climate has led to reductions in endowments and other forms of revenue.
There is evidence everywhere of the dire straits some colleges face today:
- The nonprofit Memphis College of Art was just forced to sell its art collection, a learning resource as valuable for its students as a library is to a research university.
- The California state budget crisis resulted in the elimination of student assistant jobs, resulting in a loss of income for them as they put themselves through school, and a loss of resources for students and faculty alike.
- Federal budget cuts this spring denied access to Advanced Placement exams to thousands of New York students who cannot afford the tests without assistance. These tests, which allow students to demonstrate mastery of college course material, can reduce the number of courses they must take to graduate and save them money. But without funding for the tests, students must shoulder the costs by themselves or agree to take courses they don’t need.
The need for colleges and universities to make up for lost funds and cover costs results in higher tuition and more student loan debt per student, because states have reduced student aid by significant amounts. Students take the hits to their educational budget and agree to take out greater amounts of student loan debt with a lot of fear and grumbling, but with little effective protest, because they are backed into a corner. In many instances, they are also less informed about their financial options than they could be. Then, they work long hours at jobs that will help them pay their living and college expenses. I am continually amazed at the confusion over the cause of low graduation rates, because some of the causes seem pretty clear: under-preparation before college, financial insecurity during college, and overwork.
The cost of this dynamic to our society is high. Our underfunding of education results in economic catastrophes from defaulted loans to unemployment, which not only affects individuals but also adds to the larger economic problems we face as a nation. In addition, we need higher education to bolster the economy and innovate in new areas of economic development. Universities expand to allow more students to develop both a comprehensive knowledge base that contributes to the well-being of our society and build an arsenal of marketable and useful skills that not only helps them become financial independent but allows our economy to function. For every new building that is built, for all the computer and technology upgrades, more students get the educational opportunities they need to contribute to our economy in productive ways. We need to continue investing in higher education, not reduce student aid.
To solve the higher education crisis, I would first suggest we lay off the criticism a bit and focus on supporting our public colleges and universities more, both in print and with dollars. Those who support more cuts for higher education are thinking in the short term, which may be understandable given our current economy. But we need to focus on long term goals: do we want a permanent economic recovery? If so, we need to make sure that we have an educated work force that can propel the economy. We can solve the college financial crisis by thinking long term and agreeing, as a society, that we have to spend a little money now to save money later. You can also write to your congressperson, and sign online petitions when funding cuts are pending in your state. It’s time for citizens to decide what kind of society they want and act on those beliefs.