In 2010, President Obama told a supportive crowd he wanted the United States to lead the world in number of college graduates by 2020. More recently, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have introduced legislation to make college tuition-free – meaning taxpayer-funded – for all students. They buttress their request that the two-thirds of American taxpayers who do not have a bachelor’s degree foot the bill for those seeking those degrees by repeating the little-questioned mantra that four-year degrees are the best way to prepare young people for the demands of the global marketplace of the future. But is that confidence in higher education’s benefits warranted?
True, people with four-year degrees still make more on average, but it’s hard to say how much of that difference is due to the value of the degrees, and how much of it is the varying demographic and cultural profiles of the people shelling out for them.
Increasingly, parents and students are questioning the value of taking out huge loans to go to a traditional, four-year university, especially as extreme campus protests make headlines all over the country. According to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, there are 30 million jobs in the market right now for those with something less than a bachelor’s degree, with an average salary of $55,000 a year, right around the median income in the United States.
The Obama Administration’s one-pathway-fits-all outlook, which downplayed options like apprenticeships, career certifications, two-year degrees, and flexible options like for-profit or online universities in favor of underwriting ever-larger student loans to traditional, four-year institutions, has not worked out for over-leveraged and under-employed Millennials. Worse, overregulation of alternative options and attempts to intrude into the quality evaluation business – think U.S. News & World Report rankings, but from biased bureaucrats – raised some credible fears of government bias in picking winners and losers.
But some institutions are meeting the challenge head-on. Innovative schools like the University of Indiana at Purdue are opening online classes for credit and enrollment, and looking for alternative mechanisms to finance college tuition. One such promising policy idea is an income-share agreement, which gives the borrower more predictability by shifting some of the risk (and incentive to help the student succeed after college) to the university.
Unraveling the many, costly rules that have let the higher education sector coast along oblivious to market forces will be a long-term and complex debate. But it’s clear that the status quo, where the only pathway that is marketed as successful is paying thousands of dollars in homage to institutions that raise tuition well above inflation rate annually and remain indignant at any suggestion that they might need to prove their value to prospective students, is not an sustainable option.