The Other Price of Higher Education

By: Jesse Ouellette

According to the United States Census Bureau, the current population of the United States is approaching 320 million.  Of those 320 million, 3,790,600 are reported to have college degrees.  In 2011, only 41% of recent college graduates were employed, a statistic that has remained roughly the same since 1970.  For those college grads still living with their parents, the masters holders still crashing on their friends couch, and those who, for some unknown reason, made the choice to attend law school, it is more than obvious that the job market is still in the dump. For many of these unfortunate individuals, confusion festers in their unused noggins. Questions are asked such as “why has my $200,000 undergraduate degree not landed me a job?” and “should I take out another loan and more years of my youth to earn another degree?” The answer to both these questions could lie within the increasing number of undergraduate degree holders in the United States.

Question: does an increase in the quantity of undergraduate degrees lead to an increase in job competition in the marketplace? The answer: an obvious yes. Indeed, college degrees, be they bachelors or associates, are on their way to becoming as commonplace as high school diplomas were in the 1980’s. How is the 2013 college graduate able to distinguish herself as effectively as her predecessors did thirty years ago? Several answers to this conundrum come to mind. The first and perhaps most obvious solution would be to pursue a higher degree of education, such as a masters or doctorate.  This solution would allow undergraduate degree holders to hide from the job market just a bit longer and of course rack up thousands more in debt; not an ideal scenario for the average American student, or their parents. A second and more outlandish proposal may be to combat the quantity of higher degrees by dramatically enhancing the quality of the institutions whose seal they bear. Such a solution would entail putting in place an incentive driven system that would award well-preforming and affordable institutions with federal money, i.e. tax payer money; that’s right, Uncle Sam will make you pay for college even if you have no children!

On Thursday August 22, 2013, President Obama is expected to propose plans for legislation that would rank colleges and universities in America based upon statistics such as graduation rates, tuition, debt and earnings of graduates, and percentage of enrolled lower income students. If the plan becomes legislation and makes it through Congress, federal financial aid would be focused on higher ranking institutions. Although this bit of the President’s plan may put a dent in a much larger issue, it is the remaining proposals that could greatly improve the quality of the American undergraduate degree.

Following the innovation of schools such as Southern New Hampshire University, the President’s plan would seek to reduce college cost and enhance quality through a system of college credits not based upon the hours students spend in the classroom, but instead on how much they can show they have learned. Such a system could prove an excellent method of weeding out that student who somehow managed to graduate although no one could quite figure out how, including the professor! On a more serious note, holding back individuals who truly have not earned their degree may prove to be an effective way of increasing the weight of a degree from a particular institution as well as lessening the quantity of degrees given.

A strong argument can be made that the amount of accredited four year colleges, community colleges, and universities in America is a prime contributor to the dilution of the quality of the undergraduate degree. It is no secret that any for-profit educational institution is in the business of just that, making a profit. Unfortunately, in many circumstances, this means that the attention to the quality of the academic program, as well as the individual student, suffers. When attention to quality suffers, degrees are pumped out in surplus because institutions are more interested in boosting their U.S. News rankings by having the most students graduate within a four year period. If a student can’t make the cut, no worries, there will always be another institution more than happy to issue a degree.

In an article appearing in the August 22, 2013 New York Times, Tamer Lewin wrote “while ‘satisfactory academic progress’ is required by the current law, it is left to each institution to define such progress, and students who fail out of one college can simply transfer to another and receive more aid.” This excerpt highlights a prime example of the problem which has led to the influx of college degrees within the past twenty years, and subsequently the confusion which runs rampant in degree holder’s minds as to why they cannot find employment. If we are to ever implement a solution to this problem, it must first begin with changing the mentality of America’s colleges and universities from businesses to institutions of learning. The President’s plan is a step in the right direction, but like most things in Washington we are more likely to see commercial flights to Mars before a solution to our education system will be reached. That being said, congratulations college graduates of the class of 2013, it would be best to begin filling out your masters degree or law school applications now, because the unemployment line is not moving any faster!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *