Change Is Coming, Higher Education

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerIn 1940, fewer than one in twenty Americans had a college degree. Now it’s better than one in four[1]. Fueled by a flood of American soldiers returning from WWII’s European and Pacific theaters, the GI Bill sparked an explosion in college enrollment that continues to this day.

Higher education boosts productivity and pay. The earnings gap between those with and those without a college degree is dramatic. According to the Census, individuals 25 or older with bachelor’s degrees earned nearly $22,000 per year (80%) more than those with only a high school diploma.

But what does college cost?

College pricing rivals health care in opacity—most students receive some form of “aid.” Just as in buying a car, few pay the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price.” Bloomberg Businessweek reports that 94% of students in NYS private colleges & universities receive some form of financial aid[2]. Even in public colleges, two-thirds receive aid (in addition to the outright state support to the institution).

The College Board conducts an annual survey and reports that published tuition grew 52% from 96-97 to 11-12 while tuition net of aid (including federal tax credits) rose 22% over the period, suggesting that colleges and universities are increasing the “sticker price” at the same time that aid is also rising.[3] Using the College Board’s figures on net tuition and fees, students beginning four year degrees in 2011 will pay an average of $52,000 in tuition over four years in private schools and about $10,000 in public schools. Many pay more and many pay less, of course. Consider, too, the cost of room and board—another $35-40,000—and foregone earnings.

Is college worth it?

The Great Recession fostered the worst job market in living memory, leading many recent grads to ask whether the hard work, missed opportunities and cost would pay off. Over half of graduates leave college with debt, debt that can’t be erased even in bankruptcy. Failing to find a job, many “double down” by attending graduate school and incurring yet more debt. Others work at jobs they could have gotten without the degree.

Should everyone go to college?

Debates on major issues are sponsored by a group called “Intelligence Squared” and broadcast on National Public Radio.[4] One year ago, they organized a debate on the proposition “Too many kids go to college.”[5] Sparked by a provocative article by Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, the panelists (Murray included), agreed on several key points: First, everyone needs some education and training after high school. Second, the quality of higher education varies dramatically—some degrees are more valuable than others. Many graduates of public and private schools (not just the for profits) have little to show for their efforts and debt burden. Not all agreed with Murray’s thesis that the traditional bachelor’s degree is often a waste of money and time.[6]

Is the bachelor’s degree a dinosaur?

If you’ve been on the hiring side of the job market, you know that a traditional bachelor’s degree tells you little about a job candidate. I wish we could assume that a graduate from an accredited college can write a coherent sentence and apply systematic patterns of thought to a challenging issue. We cannot. Students who wish to float through college swiftly learn how to dodge most of the challenging classes and slide through the unavoidable remainder doing as little work as possible. Few schools require anything approaching a capstone assessment. “Final” exams in courses often cover only the last unit of instruction, not the entire term.

Yet academic courses of study are not created equal. Some academic disciplines require four years or more to achieve mastery. For others, the only path to mastery is through on-the-job training; the college course of study is padded with overlapping courses. The four year standard leaves some students with too much time and others with too little. A talented CGR intern filled her senior year with cooking classes (which she enjoyed) as she’d fulfilled all other requirements for graduation.

Having served on a college faculty, I know how difficult it would be to change the status quo. College professors, by dint of personality and training, can debate the smallest issue for longer than any other group on the planet. A proposal to establish a capstone assessment would spark an endless succession of interminable faculty meetings. Wars are fought over “distribution requirements”—the list of courses that are required for graduation—because these have real impacts on the number of faculty positions in a department.

Online education may be the meteor that renders the bachelor’s degree extinct. Much of what is offered online is dull and unimaginative. But not all. One of the most exciting innovations in higher education comes from Stanford. Coursera ( offers 200 courses from some of the nation’s leading academics in 33 universities. Courses include regular assignments and assessments. Freed from the constraint of traditional 50 minute or 75 minute class schedules, faculty can divide course material into more logical segments and make innovative use of video and interactive tools. Invest 20 minutes listening to Daphne Koller, one of Coursera’s founders, in her TED Talk on this venture.[7]

Online can’t replace some of what we value in the college experience. Yet a large share of college content is already delivered in mass settings, often badly. If the Internet can deliver one third to one half of college course content in new and exciting ways—and save considerable money in the process—then the goal of improving access to education and the quality of education for all of our citizens demands that we pursue it.

And why should a one-size-fits-all bachelor’s be the standard? The Information Technology field is blazing new trails—for many employers, a B.S. in Computer Science means less than Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP) or Project Management Professional certifications or the Certified Information Systems Security Professional accreditation. Instead of a B.A. in Business Administration, why not a series of certifications confirming that the job candidate knows the material according to an accepted national standard—rather than having simply passed a course of unknown quality?

This approach can’t work in all disciplines. There will always be a place for the residential college experience, the opportunity to expand the horizons of a young person and open their eyes to new worlds. But let’s admit that while colleges can attempt to create such an environment, one that produces “educated” adults who become better citizens and voters, the effort is lost on many and imposes a tremendous burden on students whose resources are limited. Entirely too often, a college degree confers barely more than a diploma and a tenacious debt burden.

Higher education has an obligation to deliver more consistent quality at a defensible price. Innovations like Coursera will continue to challenge the status quo, improving the return from our education investment and opening up higher education to many who can’t afford the time or money now required by the traditional model.

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