In a republic, the mission of higher education is to empower individuals to live fully in their time free from economic or public dependency. The mission endures, but times change.
In the old industrial economy before the 1980s, high school was enough to provide middle class earnings for most Americans: two-thirds of jobs required workers with only a high school education or less. Now, except for about 20 percent of males who can still make it in the blue-collar sector, the high school economy is gone and it is not coming back. Two-thirds of jobs now require workers with at least some college.
The variety of postsecondary programs and credentials today, however, has become a Tower of Babel, a system too vast for prospective students to comprehend and evaluate by institutional reputation alone. Postsecondary programs more than quintupled from 1985 to 2010, from 410 to 2,260. Since 1950, the number of colleges and universities has more than doubled and the number of college students has increased tenfold. At the same time, the number of distinct occupations has tripled to more than 800. This blizzard of options and the lack of transparency have driven the higher education market toward mediocrity.
Since 1980, tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities have risen 19 times faster than average family incomes. This has fueled a basic efficiency problem in higher education. As prices have risen, the United States has fallen from first to 10th in postsecondary credential attainment for people ages 25-34 among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations. Our Canadian neighbors, for example, now get a 56 percent postsecondary credential attainment rate by spending 2.6 percent of their GDP on higher education. We get a 46 percent attainment rate by spending 2.7 percent of our GDP. At the current US higher education productivity rate, we would have to spend almost $200 billion more annually to catch the Canadians. We cannot afford that. As it is, students are saddled with college debt they cannot afford and taxpayers are saddled with an 11.5 percent default rate on student loans.
The growing buyer’s remorse among former students has made times even more uncertain. The majority of Americans (51%) would change their degree type, institution, or major if they could do it again, according to the results of a 2017 Gallup Poll. These regrets were influenced by a number of factors, but one was lack of information about degrees and the careers they could lead to.
Because postsecondary education and training have become the most welltraveled pathways to middle class earnings, both students and the educators who serve them need to learn new rules of the college and career game. Students need to shop around for college because higher education is a student’s first major investment in the transition from dependent adolescent to independent adult. Students deserve to know what they are paying for.