Archive for the ‘ Higher-Ed ’ Category

Where is higher ed going?

Here’s another recent NYT Your Money post, “Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt,” that follows the depressing story of one Cortney Munna, who’s struggling to pay back 100k in student loans for her women’s studies / religious studies degree from NYU. (To be fair, it was a fairly rigorous liberal arts program, and she stands up to defend it in a follow-up written by Cortney herself. ) The original article attracted well over 600 comments, mostly from jaded readers who were quick to question her choices of degree, school, and financing.

My two cents made it into the featured comments digest (Sweet! Do I get a cookie??). Here is part of what I wrote:

The future will find fewer students living on-campus for the entire four years. There will be more transfer students from community colleges. Large lecture classes will be conducted with online collaborative learning tools (BlackBoard and video conferencing products like Wimba). The trend of hiring adjuncts to cover introductory classes will probably continue.

As the past 5 pages of commenters have demonstrated, there is a huge general pressure to turn university majors into career preparatory programs. This is an understandable sentiment, especially considering the present cost (in real dollars) of a four year degree. But with the exception of certain positive-growth fields like nursing, colleges will resist this pressure because it virtually precludes arts and humanities, fields that have been unwaveringly taught for years despite their obvious indifference to economics.

The compromise here would be to allow four-year universities to deflate and offload the pressure to two-year schools; technical schools and community college are where industry-specific programs belong. This is, of course, how CCs have operated for years, but the sheer volume of students willing to take on easy debt, multiplied by the breakneck velocity of the subprime years, plus the consequent degree-inflation feedback loop, have made them into an invisible, if not stigmatized, option.

After all, imagine you’re a middle-class suburban highschooler who’s finally hearing back from colleges: do you aim for a generic Associates from the CC down the block, or do you trade what effectively looks like Monopoly money to be whisked away to New York, where the dorms all have free wi-fi, the lap pool is open 24-hours, and the dining commons has an omelette bar on Sundays? If you’re a parent who naturally wants the best for your child, how can you resist feeling proud when they make it into an expensive school?

We place such a high cultural value on the college rite that we are unlikely to see the correction happen overnight. But colleges will adapt, and so will the culture that feeds them. In five or ten years, we’ll look back on stories like this and recognize the era for what it was: the stagnant bubble bath of late capitalism.

On a final note: when reading stories like this, look for the inevitable citation that college graduates still enjoy a higher earning potential than their high-school-educated peers. Isn’t it telling that the most obvious justification for attending college is framed as a wager?


Demand for college degrees will grow indefinitely.

Here’s are some gentlemen from George Washington University who suggest that colleges should switch to a three-year model to save on expenses. It’s a brief read, a smidge over 500 words.

I meant to post this about a week ago with some extended commentary, but time has been scarce. Instead, let me say this: sure, the three-year model would obviously make more efficient use of college facilities, and could theoretically slash an average undergrad’s room-and-board expenses by up to 25%. But they’d still be buying 4 years’ worth of credits, and the increased course load would preclude work study, which translates into higher loans. (Surely Trachtenberg and Kauvar are not suggesting the operational savings would translate into discounted tuition rates, especially since they suggest hiring additional faculty.)

Anyway, my real disagreement with the op-ed is that they suggest that demand for 4-year degrees will continue to be strong. I think this premise is flawed for several reasons that I hope to better outline in future posts. The short version is: the current job market seems unable to absorb the volume of graduates our colleges are currently cranking out, so increasing the rate at which we award degrees would apparently serve to only exacerbate the problem. In many ways, the crisis in higher education is linked to the housing bubble, and we shouldn’t expect the outcome to be any different.

On a final note, I enjoyed the unbridled optimism of the final four paragraphs, especially the closing thought:

America is blessed with a post-secondary educational system second to none. But we’re victims of our own success — demand is outstripping capacity, even as costs soar. Cutting the undergraduate experience to three years would allow our colleges to be as efficient as they are effective.

Is this the cutting-edge of degree inflation?