Do we really know what students are getting out of college? There are lots of data from colleges and independent researchers on this subject. The more it is pored through the more the conclusion is one of ambiguity and indecision. The mixed views are becoming clearer, and a single voice is beginning to resonate among all the skeptics. There is something unified in the various judgements and opinions being cast: students are getting less out of college than they once were.
William J. Bennett, secretary of education under President Reagan, and Jeffrey Selingo, an editor at The Chronicle of Higher Education, believes our system is self-destructing. Bennett states that ‘college costs are up, while learning and graduation rates are down’ (Delbanco 2013). Naturally, Bennett is coming at this subject with a very conservative voice. He boldly declares that ‘upon graduation, a college degree today is more likely to guarantee you debt than a well-paying job’. The conservative voice has always said that ‘there are too many people going to college’ however, Bennett’s argument is beginning to hold weight. The popular journey through to higher education is paying off far less than the aura and prestige around it choose not to reflect. Bennett’s advice is clear – look at the data: ‘student-loan debt, return on investment, lifetime salary earnings, academic performance, skills training….and so on’ (Delbanco 2013). So the question remains – if college fees continue to rise and outcomes for students are beginning to constantly disappoint, what on earth is the money being spent on?
A concerned parent would imagine state of the art technology, textbooks, high calibre tutors, educational outings, improved accommodation, excellent library and e-learning facilities, increased accessibility and greater connections for work experience placements.
Selingo suggests that the roughly $1 trillion students pay and subsequently owe to private and public lenders is wasted. The splendor and prestige that universities parade takes some maintaining. Before you even get to the essentials of education there is the pomp, ceremony, costly events, monuments, statues, marketing and publicity.
The student is becoming the customer and expecting more for their money or at least a clear trail of how it is spent. The balance of power is shifting, and colleges are falling short. The most sobering fact is that graduates do not seem to have an advantage when looking for work. A report from consulting firm McKinsey, done together with student website Chegg informs us that ‘nearly half of grads from four-year colleges are working in jobs that don’t require a four-year degree’ (M&C 2013). On top of, that 40% of grads could not find jobs in their chosen field.
So again I ask – what are they actually paying for? A degree is worthless if it does not act as a key to a student’s chosen profession. Work is not a gift but when a student puts themselves in debt, and their family also make sacrifices there has to be a suitable return. They end up with a very prestigious piece of paper that cannot be converted into meaningful, life-changing, dream fulfilling employment. Is the dream a false hope for half of our enthusiastic youth racing out of colleges to find the promised land of a consciously selected career? Is it a myth created by the institutions who need their money to survive? If six times as many graduates are working in retail and hospitality as had originally planned then why choose further education?
The reality is that the decision to go to college just got harder than it has even been before. The experience, the institutions, and the financial outlay is under scrutiny and deserves the methodical scrutiny of every student embarking on the higher education journey.
The McKinsey & Company report tells us that across all institutions over half of all graduates would pick a different major or school, or even both, if they were to start over (M&C 2013). Students are not getting what they want out of college. Both American parties have reform built into their agendas so the right and the left are in agreement. Something needs to change – the only question is what?
McKinsey & Company (2013). Voice of the Graduate. In collaboration with Chegg, Inc. PDF Available by clicking here.