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Higher Education’s Cost and Value

A Tale of North and South
Commentary

Earlier this month, the College Board issued its annual report on college costs and student financial aid. The Board’s findings are sobering, though not surprising, to those familiar with the direction of American higher education over the last few decades. As reported in the Associated Press, the Board found that “nationally, the cost of a full credit load has passed $8,000, an all-time high. Throw in room and board, and the average list price for a state school now runs more than $17,000 a year.”

To put these latest numbers in perspective, consider the following: According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, “over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent—more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care.” The result: overall American expenditure on higher education is the highest of all OECD nations, and twice the international average.

Given the relentlessly northbound direction of college costs, it should be no shock to learn that student debt is following the same course. This year, total student-loan debt will exceed one trillion dollars nationally (more than total credit-card debt). Today, the average student graduates with nearly $24,000 in college-loan debt.

Many products either become less expensive or deliver increased value or functionality over time. But the available evidence strongly indicates that American education – elementary, secondary, and especially higher – is an exception.

This year, two sociology professors, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, authored Academically Adrift, a study of college achievement published by the University of Chicago. The book reveals that 45 percent of the students in its sample showed little improvement in their critical thinking capacities after two years of college. After four years, 36 percent showed little improvement.

What does this mean in practice? According to the findings of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the majority of college graduates found it difficult to perform such elementary tasks as comparing the viewpoints of two newspaper editorials or computing and comparing the cost per ounce of food items.

A number of critics blame these troubling results on the decline of meaningful course requirements. Recently, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) reviewed the general education requirements at more than 1,000 colleges and universities.

The good news from ACTA’s study is that Texas generally does better than other states. The bad news: most of the other states perform very badly. ACTA found that fewer than 20 percent of American colleges require a basic course in American History or Government, and more than one-third do not require college-level mathematics.

These shortcomings in general education have real-life consequences, which are being noticed by the job market. According to a Partnership for 21st Century Skills report, 26 percent of surveyed employers find the writing skills of their newly hired college graduates to be “deficient.” Those lacking writing skills are finding that a college degree helps little in todays’ competitive global marketplace.

Academically Adrift’s co-author, Richard Arum, tracked the students from the Class of 2009 in his study. Arum found that 31 percent of these new graduates have moved back home to live with their parents, and the majority earn less than $30,000 per year. Needless to say, this is not what students and their parents were promised when they made the sacrifices necessary to obtain a college degree.

With the cost of a college degree heading north, while its value treks south, students, parents, and taxpayers are entitled to put to our universities two questions: How did American higher education come to lose its direction? And what are you doing to right its course?

Thomas Lindsay, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Higher Education at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.