The Broken Higher Education System: Can it Be Fixed?
The system of higher education in the United States is broken, but not in the ways many people believe. The steps necessary to fix it will not necessarily be popular or easy. And fixing it while cutting the education budget, as has been proposed by the Trump administration, will be even more difficult.
Still, with students struggling to finish college and leaving with high levels of debt, and with employers piling ever more requirements on jobs, there’s little doubt that change – for the better – should be pursued.
Cost of education for students
The skyrocketing costs of higher education have been discussed in depth in many quarters, but the narrative differs from one conversation to the other. In part, this is due to a lack of understanding about some basic economic concepts.
The National Center for Education Statistics shows the cost of education doubled between 1984 and 2014, when all prices were converted to 2014 dollars. According to data compiled by CNBC, the cost of tuition and fees only at a public four-year institution rose at a greater rate than any other metric, including apparel, transportation, food and beverages, housing, and medical care.
A more careful inspection of the cost of earning a degree reveals tuition increases are roughly equal to the rate of inflation. Additionally, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows the percentage of the population that has received a college degree has steadily risen since the 1940s..
Historically, institutions of higher education were reserved for families at the upper end of the socio-economic ladder. The problem is a greater number of people from all socio-economic backgrounds are now actively pursuing advanced degrees.
But there’s a hitch, according to Dr. Jude Miller Burke, psychologist and author of The Millionaire Mystique. “Education and growth are very important but college does not guarantee success,” Miller says. “Ideally, all who want to go to college would have the opportunity. But it is not college in and of itself that is necessary.”
She explains: “Based on a scientific study of over 300 successful, high earning men and women, what is critical is to have meaningful work where you feel like you contribute to society.”
The solution to the rising cost of education, in part, is to reframe the narrative. The conversation should revolve around how colleges can service a larger percentage of the population effective and affordably.
Cost of funding educational services
While the expectation that lower-income students will attend college has increased, local and state government funding has decreased. An increase in the number of students who need assistance to attend universities coupled with a decrease in funding has produced much of the difficulties faced by the system.
In all but four states, funding has decreased dramatically in the past decade. However, the problem began long before that. State funding has been decreasing steadily since the 1970s. This correlates with an increase in student interest in attending school.
While there is an outcry from the general public and government officials about the affordability of higher education, there has not been active support from these parties. To adequately increase the supply of educational services, the colleges need more state funding. When this results in talk of tax increases, it is uniformly unpopular.
That’s one of the reasons students resort to loans, and now the average student loan debt exceeds $37,000. Brandon Yahn, CEO of StudentLoansGuy.com, which provides personal finance advice for millennials, says students must consider the cost vs. the return of attending college – as well as their motivation. “They typically don’t think about the long-term costs of education when making their choice,” Yahn says. “Everyone should not attend college if they are entering fields that don’t require a college degree.”
Career coach Crystal Olivarria of CareerConversationalist.com narrows that sentiment down even further: “When a lot of students are pushed to attend college and don’t really want to be there it takes up resources that could otherwise go to kids who want to be there. There should be more discussion about what their options are after high school.” Olivarria explains a possible solution. “While a lot of students may not want to earn a four-year degree, they are more likely to want to attend a two-year degree at a technical college that offers a lot of hands on experience than settle for a career of a minimum wage job. Students need to be better informed about their options so they can make smarter decisions that will impact the rest of their life.”
But it’s not all on students. Institutions should look at cost-saving measures such as an investment in technology. Increased implementation of automation of student services, e-textbooks, and online learning platforms can all help drive down the cost of tuition, but universities need the funds to begin the process.
John Turner, founder and CEO of QuietKit, says some of the problem comes when colleges try to be everything to everyone. “Probably the best overall approach to fixing higher education, both in terms of costs and also access, would be to focus on unbundling what a full college or university does, and then have a narrow focus around those specific services and working to vastly improve them while drastically lowering costs,” Turner says. “So instead of a school offering dozens of majors, double down on just a few, and integrate them all together, to try to produce the best version of that major possible.”
Financial literacy and higher education
Compounding the problem of student debt is the reality that some students have unrealistic expectations of how much student debt is appropriate for their anticipated career field. Not knowing how much debt is too much is one of the biggest problems with higher education.
The best way to fix this is an increase in the amount of financial counseling students receive before they take on an exorbitant amount of debt to finance a career that may not provide the funds to repay it in a timely manner. There is an existing requirement for students who are applying for certain types of federal student loans to undergo entrance counseling and the Department of Education has financial literacy materials available to those who seek them out.
One of the structures the government has put in place is the College Scorecard website, which allows students to procure much of the information needed to make an informed decision. When combined with the Occupational Outlook Handbook from Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is possible for students to find enough information to determine if the amount of debt needed to receive a specific degree will be a good investment.
Higher education remains the best option for those who can afford it without taking on unreasonable amounts of debt. The problem is making it affordable to a larger percentage of the population. Until citizens are willing to pay higher taxes or reprioritize where their tax dollars go, the system will remain broken for many.