The Higher Education Status Quo Is Failing More and More Young People

The claws are out for defenders of the status quo in higher education. The latest assault on their worldview comes from the results of a Gallup survey that shows that increasing levels of college debt decreases happiness, health, job satisfaction, and a myriad of other measures of well being.

Susan Dynarski, a professor of education at the University of Michigan, is foremost among the critics. She writes in the New York Times:

I am happy to yield the point that, everything else held constant, a person will be happier without debt than with it. The key phrase here is “everything else constant.” I have a mortgage because I have a house. I would be less happy with no mortgage and no house.

Graduates with student debt used it to buy something valuable. To state the obvious, you can’t have student debt without having gone to college. Without a student loan, these borrowers may not have been able to get a degree at all. And that benefit is missing from this poll, which surveyed only college graduates. Their alternate-universe selves, who did not go to college because they had no loans to turn to, are not in the survey.

That’s all true. But it’s also an incredibly narrow interpretation of the situation. Young college graduates aren’t demonstrating lower levels of wellbeing because they paid for college. No, they’re increasingly upset because the cost of college is soaring at the same time that the quality of the education being offered is falling and the outcomes for graduates is worsening. The “something valuable” that Dynarksi writes about is being increasingly devalued.

The first part of the problem is the cost of college, which, contrary to the apparent beliefs of professor Dynarski, is the true problem (student loan debt is merely a symptom of the disease). According to data compiled by the Delta Cost project, tuition for a public four-year college in 1970 was $358 per semester. If you take inflation into account the cost of college in 2010 should have been $2,052. But the reality was far different. Instead, the average semester tuition has grown to $6,695 – far in excess of inflation.

It would be one thing if that money was flowing into classrooms in a way that increased the value of a diploma. As Matthew Saccaro writes for Salon, that’s not happening:

Instead, much of the tuition dollars are being funneled into administrator salaries, as well as salaries for coaches and athletic directors and other sports-related nonsense. Tuition dollars are also crucial in providing amenities that are absent in some 5-star hotels. Yet colleges across the country are sporting these luxuries, things like mega-gyms, gourmet eateries, washing machines that make the Curiosity rover look like an obsolescent tin can, and more. Colleges are spending money on salaries and sales gimmicks, not on what matters. “Hey, kids! Come to our college; we’re Club Med. Oh and yeah there are some courses but that’s not important.”

While Saccaro’s assessment may sound like flippant, click bait, his assessment is borne out by statistics. According to research done by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, at least 45 percent of students fail to demonstrate statistically significant improvement in general analytical competencies during the first two years of college and 36 percent do not show improvement over four years.

“Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent,” the researchers write in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Sadly, a casual observer wouldn’t notice the academic troubles of college graduates by looking at their GPA. In December 2012, the Economist found that, “A remarkable 43 percent of all grades are four-year universities are A’s, an increase of 28 percentage points since 1960. Grade point averages rose from about 2.52 in the 1950s to 3.11 in 2006.”

The bottom line is that the status quo in higher education should be unacceptable to everyone. We should all demand the best education, leading to the best career outcomes, at the best price possible for young adults. Anything else not only shortchanges young people, it dims America’s future.