Sunday, July 01, 2018

The Higher Education Racket

(Via the Drudge Report)

The headline of the Boston Globe article reads "Lawrence Bacow promises a more outward-looking Harvard". For those of you who have never been involved in higher ed, and a lot of us who have been, the the first thing that occurs to us is "Who the hell is Lawrence Bacow?"

He's the new president of Harvard. As such, he is at the top of the higher ed food chain. Harvard is one of the largest universities in the US in pretty much any category that actually matters--prestige, endowment, quality of students and so on. No, their football team never wins the Rose Bowl. Heck, they never even smell the roses. But in higher ed, while athletics may often be the tail that wags the academic dog, no academic thinks it actually matters. In reality, I agree with them. Any kid who goes to college to play a sport with the hopes of a further career as a pro athlete is a fool. Look up the stats.

Bacow isn't a fool. Sure, he's been in higher ed most of his career, but you don't get to be president of Harvard if you're a fool. He realizes that higher ed is facing challenges unlike any time in its history in the United States. The cost of attendance to any school past high school has been increasing at a rate far past inflation for years. Too many students are getting degrees that, after graduation, qualify them for work at Starbucks. Colleges and universities are seen as cesspools of far left politics. All in all, higher ed has a big image problem, and it's getting worse by the semester. The public's perception of of higher ed as a whole is only somewhat ahead of Congress and the media.

Having worked in higher ed, I can tell you a lot of this is absolutely true. While I miss my old job, there are a lot of things about it I don't miss.

  • I don't miss trying to explain to parents why their kid ought to come to college when I didn't send both of my kids to college and firmly believe that not all kids need to go to a four year school.
  • I don't miss watching the cost of attendance ratchet up at a stupefying rate as schools try to outdo each other with facilities that look more like luxury vacation get-aways rather than college campuses. My house isn't as nice as some residence halls I've seen. 
  • I don't miss watching students signing away years of their lives on the dotted lines of student loan forms. Most of them barely understand the concept of borrowing money, let alone the scale of what they're borrowing. Add to that the methodology of calculating how much they're allowed to borrow, which is too complex to go into here, and they wind up with far more than they really should be allowed to borrow. At the beginning of every semester, the new tats, smart phones, TVs, laptops and so one, paid for by that excess borrowed money, boggle the mind.
  • I don't miss watching majors such as sports medicine, art, sports management, religion, communications, religious music and so on being filled up with students attending on borrowed money. The majority of these kids will face three employment futures. They will either A) Never work in the field they're educated in; B) Work in it and face a life of being chronically under-paid and under-employed or C) Both A and B. The world only needs so many of these folks, and the bitty school I worked at graduated enough by itself for the entire eastern half of the US. But they all still have to pay back those student loans, so penury becomes a way of life.
  • That "cesspool of liberalism" thing. Great Bleeding Ghu. Scratch an academic and 97-98 times out of 100, you'll find a socialist or a communist. As a staff member, I got pretty good at biting my tongue. It was that or get fired.
As a college grad, I can tell you that my college experience has paid off for me tremendously. My degree and what I learned lifted me from my blue collar beginnings into the middle class, white collar world. Having lived in both, trust me when I tell you the middle class one is much more pleasant. Mrs. Freeholder has a less dramatic experience, but she tends to agree with the basic sentiment.

As the parent of two recent college age kids, the experience is far different. Higher ed and it's BA/BS degree is becoming the equivalent of the high school diploma of my youth. I feel a large part of that is because our education system, from elementary to college, is not teaching as much at any given level. There were too many times that I saw papers written by students--and I mean juniors and seniors--at my former employer that would have earned a big fat red F in one of my high school English classes. I will guarantee these kids got a C and pushed along toward graduation.

My kids also demonstrate something else I've noticed. Daughter graduated from a well-thought of university with a BA in business. She struggled for 4 years to find a job in her field, went back for a masters degree and still really hasn't found one that's up to her skills and abilities, though she has found something that pays well enough for her to move out of the house. (Yay!)

Son went to the local community college and got an AAS in welding, along with 8 certificates in various aspects of the trade. He had a job lined up when he graduated. He's been working there about 18 months. He moved out before his sister, and on the average week makes at least 25% more than she does. Obviously it's hot, dirty work, but he likes it. His total education cost somewhat less than one year of Daughter's.

You tell me--which kid benefited more from their education, especially in terms of bang for the buck?

I'm not the only parent noticing this sort of thing. Parents across the country are demanding that colleges and universities prove the value proposition of their product. Even Daughter's university made a big point in 2009 when she started that they realized that it was expensive to send a child to school there and their goal was to see their students graduate in 4 years, and they were serious about it. Daughter did it in 4 years and two summer sessions, the summer session caused by a change in major.

The Globe article notes that many smaller schools are "struggling to remain open." That's putting it mildly. Unless they're blessed with a large endowment (say mid-hundreds of $millions) small schools are fighting for their lives. My former employer has been one disaster away from closing for years, and remains one disaster away from closing. In the higher ed press, it's an acknowledged fact that within 10 years, at least 15% of small, rural, private liberal arts schools will be closed. I suspect it will be worse than that.

This will not be confined to small schools, rural schools, private schools or liberal arts schools. The Globe article also notes that "Public universities also saw their second straight year of declining revenue growth...." I know that in the University of North Carolina system, there are at least 2 campuses that are in danger of failing for lack of students. I imagine other large public university systems face similar circumstances. Public university and community college systems are also facing declining taxpayer support at the state level in many states. Several NC community colleges have successfully turned to their local governments and gotten 1/4 cent sales tax levies passed to help with funding issues.

Finally, there is, what from the point of view of many, is the political indoctrination aspect of higher education. From Harvard and UC-Berkeley to Evergreen State, our colleges and universities seem to have become more institutions where our young are taught what to think rather than how to think. Again, from personal experience as both a university staff member and a parent who had kids in higher ed, I can attest that, in my experience, this is true. Only the strong teachings we bestowed on our children before sending them off into these dens of vipers allowed them to emerge without being assimilated by the Academic Borg.

President Bacow may have his heart in the right place, but I have to wonder if he is compromised from the outset. He may also be simply biting off more than he can chew. Time will tell--and given the current state of things in this country, time is the one resource he may not have much of.

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