Matter of Degree

Richard Quinn

YES, EDUCATION IS invaluable. But should young adults go to college to obtain a piece of paper that may mean little in the real world? Is the student debt we hear so much about really worth it? Could pushing college attendance for all be as misguided as pushing homeownership for all?

I’m not against formal education. I put four children through college. In fact, I believe parents are obligated to cover their children’s college costs, assuming they have the financial wherewithal to do so. That doesn’t mean they should pay college costs at the expense of retirement savings—but it may mean delaying the purchase of a new RV. Parents also have a duty to guide their 18-year-old’s college decision. I don’t see a child turning 18 as the signal that parents are done parenting.

I also believe we need to expand how we define education, which—in my view—doesn’t begin and end in the classroom. I learned a great deal about the Second World War from visiting the Normandy Beaches and Auschwitz, and about the Middle East from seeing the living conditions in the West Bank and listening to residents. I learn every day by reading, usually two or three books at a time.

My contention: We need to question why it takes four years—and often more—to get a bachelor’s degree, why college is priced as it is and perhaps how we fund those degrees considered important to society. Clearly, you need a rigorous course of study for a professional degree. But if you aren’t aiming to become, say, a doctor, dentist, architect or lawyer, it strikes me we need an educational system with greater flexibility.

Many European students finish their degrees in three years by focusing on their majors. General education, like writing skills and critical thinking, are learned in high school.

By contrast, in the U.S., many students enter college unprepared and are placed in remedial classes, thereby paying a steep price for basic education that should have been learned long before college. Why are we surprised that, lacking parental guidance, students often burden themselves with unaffordable debt, in part by taking low value courses which could be considered a luxury? Patients who don’t follow the doctor’s instructions, or fail to take medication, get little value for their money. A student not focused on his or her education likewise gets little value from college.

The U.S. ranks just 16th among developed countries in literacy. The statistics on reading skills are shocking and have a direct impact not only on college, but also on our citizens’ ability to function effectively in today’s society.

I question assumptions like higher cost equals higher quality. That a four-year model fits all. That any degree provides value. That having a degree guarantees a better job, more income, better life decisions and greater success—however that’s defined.

And what about the cost of higher education? I randomly picked the University of the Pacific, a private nonprofit school I’ve never heard of. Tuition is $49,688. The full cost is $68,784. But 90% of students receive financial aid and the net cost is about half the sticker price. So what’s the true cost? It’s similar to health care. The billed price is unrelated to the real price.

From 2000 to 2019, the average health care inflation rate was 3.4% annually. College tuition increased at an average inflation rate of 5.14% over the same period. Why do we scream about the former and yet don’t question the latter? Instead of looking at the cost structure of colleges, including the money spent on administration, buildings and so on, we focus only on the debt needed to pay for it.

Rhetoric about student loans looks at symptoms and not causes. Generous loans may even contribute to the high cost and the time spent in school—again, not unlike health care and health insurance. It seems to me that, if college loans are to be made, they need to come with conditions that ensure the money is efficiently and effectively spent, both by the student and the institution.

Following one’s dream is fine. But when it comes to selecting a college major and incurring thousands in debt, there’s a practical aspect as well. The job and income prospects matter. Not all majors are equal. In fact, some are declining in demand.

There are good reasons insurance companies and governments monitor, evaluate and sometimes limit what they pay for health care. Why should college be any different? As with health care, we have been seduced into accepting that cost equals quality and that more is better.

Insurance premiums are not the fundamental problem with health care costs—and student loans are not the fundamental problem with college. In both cases, the issue is what’s charged for what we consume—and the way we consume it.

Richard Quinn blogs at Before retiring in 2010, Dick was a compensation and benefits executive. His previous articles include Lesson UnlearnedMaking It Work and Righting Wrongs. Follow Dick on Twitter @QuinnsComments.

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