Is College Right for All?

The conventional wisdom in America is that completing college is an economic necessity – even a rite of passage – for young Americans, and so we must do everything we can to ensure that everyone gets to college.

But is that wisdom correct? In a new Brookings Institution study, Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill question that assumption. They are right to do so. It is true that gaining college-equivalent skills is now virtually a necessary condition to climbing the economic ladder, and also, as the Pew Foundation reports, college graduates have weathered the recession better than non-graduates. It is also true that on average the return on investment to a degree remains strongly positive as measured in conventional ways. But as Owen and Sawhill explain, the averages cloak a more complicated story.

For one thing, with the rapid escalation of tuition costs and the five or six-year bachelor degree increasingly the norm, the income premium due to college is eroding for many. And of course those who drop out incur a large debt with little or negative return on their investment. For another thing, Owen and Sawhill point out, earnings vary widely by major, with engineering and other sciences yielding a big return and the liberal arts boosting earnings by much less.

A wide variation in graduation rates also raises serious questions about the quality of the “supply side” and also whether conventional college is the right path for everyone seeking college-level skills. This is especially an issue for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and/or need remedial help to reach the college graduation bar. As Byron Price has complained on this blog site, for instance, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities have an abysmally low graduation rate. Part of the problem is the poor performance of many colleges at delivering their promised product. Part is that many students actually need an alternative, customized education to acquire the skills they need, but instead often drop out with nothing to show for it but debt and dashed hopes.

Owen and Sawhill’s study underscores yet again that the traditional college business model is failing and is not the right pathway for many if not most young Americans seeking to do well in the future economy. But thanks to entrepreneurs and technological innovations the tools are becoming available to enable us to provide a customized education that meets the post-secondary needs of every young American. As the New York Times reported recently, some colleges are utilizing the growing range of online MOOC courses to address the nearly half of undergraduates who need remedial classes, and the results are quite striking. Meanwhile many community colleges are also beginning to step up to the plate to provide a smarter and better-value education as an alternative to costly four-year institutions. And for many young people, beefed-up apprenticeships may be a better alternative than college. But as I’ve pointed out here before, resistance from the college establishment needs to be removed if customization is to become the norm, with a focus on providing students with measurable and credentialed skills rather than a dropout’s debt burden or a college level jello degree that does little to advance a graduate’s job prospects.

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Posted by: Stuart Butler

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