Why We May Not be the Envy of the World

 By Watson Scott Swail, President & CEO, Educational Policy  Institute/EPI International

Earlier this week, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria wrote a piece in Time Magazine (also in a segment on CNN) titled The Thin Envelope Crisis about US Higher education with consideration of the letters that are currently going out to over one million students regarding their acceptance or rejection.

As Zakaria says, “For all the problems with its elementary and secondary schools, American higher education remains the envy of the world. It has been the nation’s greatest path to social and economic mobility, sorting and rewarding talented kids from any and all backgrounds. But there are broad changes taking place at U.S. universities that are moving them away from an emphasis on merit and achievement and toward offering a privileged experience for an already privileged group.”

He continues: “A new book, Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, shows how some state schools have established a ‘party pathway,’ admitting more and more rich out-of-state kids who can afford hefty tuition bills but are middling students. These cash cows are given special attention through easy majors, lax grading, social opportunities and luxurious dorms. That’s bad for the bright low-income students…They are neglected and burdened by college debt and fail in significant numbers.”

Zakaria talks about the spots taken by student athletes who have very low merit that could go to other, much more deserving low-income and first generation students. But that argument is for another day (see my piece, The NCAA: Missing the Point of a Higher Education).

But his argument buttresses something I have been talking about for several years: that we have fundamentally lost sight of the purpose of higher education in America. Further exacerbating the point is that our government, philanthropy, and public sector leaders have significantly upped the ante for parents by suggesting that our society—and our individuals—cannot be successful without a college education. Given that most parents will do almost anything for their children, this practice of scare tactics, not unlike what we see from our political leaders during elections (and, unfortunately, in between, too), is mind-numbingly cruel. We hear more and more about families using retirement funds to pay for college, leaving the parents in a lurch and working several years longer than they had hoped. This is a major issue for public policy and for families: how much is a college education for your child worth?

We are almost at the tipping point when higher education will not be worth the investment. For families with larger deposits of disposable income, this is a non-issue because they simply sign the checks and what is done is done. For middle-income families, those who typically do not receive any gifted financial aid (loans DO NOT COUNT because they have to be repaid), the thought of paying for college means that they are bartering their financial future for the experience that Zakaria writes and speaks of.

There is a huge difference in providing the opportunity to train to be a doctor, lawyer (God forbid), mechanic, or social worker, than providing students a four-year pathway to gain a “liberal arts” education so that they are more well versed and rounded. I’m not arguing liberal arts, because I am a major supporter of these studies. But at what cost? Should students and their parents be taking on $100,000-$200,000 in tuition, fees, and associated costs so that they are “more well rounded?” This sounds completely absurd to me.

If we can do liberal arts for marginal cost, then so be it. But perhaps we do liberal arts better in earlier in the cycle so that high school students graduate in a well-rounded form. There will always be those who can easily expensive liberal arts. Let them. But for the massess, we must come to grips with a college system that is already too expensive and will continue to become more expensive. We must change our tack on what it means to go to college because outcomes matter as do jobs. And if we are leveraging one’s financial future through a far-outmoded education system for jobs that simply don’t exist, then we have a problem.

The conclusion is that the “experience” of college is simply unattainable for most students. It is too expensive, both in fiscal cost and opportunity cost. The fact that many students (perhaps most) want to go to college to “party” (and a recent study by EPI suggests that much is very, very true), suggests that our current structure really isn’t serving much of a purpose with regard to societal needs.

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About Educational Policy Institute

The Educational Policy Institute is a Washington, DC-based research think tank on education and the social sciences. EPI conducts evaluation and policy studies on various educational issues from Pre-K to workforce outcomes in the United States, Canada, and beyond. Visit us at educationalpolicy.org.
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