Addressing College Debt- Part 4: The Student Solutions

One of the problems with the cost of education lies in the educational system itself which unfairly places way too much emphasis on a college degree.  This is an unfortunate truth that must be confronted: 40% of this year’s entering freshmen will fail to get a B.A. within six years.  No business would accept a 60% customer satisfaction rating, yet that is the productive reality of higher education today.  Is it any wonder we talk about the “underemployed” when 15% of the nation’s taxi drivers have a college degree, and college graduates are grossly over-represented in the retail sector.  Part of this stems from this emphasis in grade and high schools towards college.  Often the graduate emerges (if they graduate at all) with a degree that is not marketable, in serious debt, and they’ve lost 4-6 years of earning potential.

The Left will tell you that we as a country have under-invested in higher education when the exact opposite is the truth.  The proof is in the number of people with useless degrees.  The proof is in the enormous debt incurred.  And part and parcel of the problem is the lowered admission standards adopted by many colleges.  Given the money pumped into the system, there is a fight for those dollars and that fight has unfortunately created a race to the bottom.  Schools should be granted incentives to turn down applicants with a low probability of college academic success.  We have good indicators despite the Leftist verbal hogwash to the contrary: the SAT is still the best predictor of college success.  Cut off points for admission should be just that, not tinkered with at the fringes to accommodate some affirmative action plan.  Those who fall in these categories should be steered towards a two-year Associate’s Degree program and, if they demonstrate they can handle an academically less rigorous education, then they should transfer to a 4-year college with credits.  Conversely, since colleges are taking risks by lowering admission standards, colleges should bear some responsibility for the risks they take with student admissions by bearing some or all of the cost of student loan defaults.

Hand-in-hand with this is the lowered academic standards in colleges.  Despite possessing a B.A. or B.S., many graduates are barely literate, or cannot balance a check book.  Schools can start the process of winnowing early by simply not accepting any student from the bottom quartile of a high school graduating class.  This has to start with schools making a commitment to strengthening admission and academic standards.  If they admit marginal students who then fail and default on loans and waste taxpayer dollars, the schools should pay a penalty.  If their commitment is to diversity, great; but if that diversity initiative fails, then they- the schools- must pay a price.  In short, colleges MUST put more time and effort in enhancing student performance and less time in advancing politically correct initiatives.  Today, colleges are like de facto high schools for slightly older kids.  As mentioned previously, why is there a need for remedial classes at the college level?  Remedial classes must cease.  If you belong in a remedial class, you do not belong in college!  There needs to be a commitment to making higher education truly “higher.”

Did you know that in the 1950s the average GPA of your average college student was 2.50?  Today, the average GPA is 3.10 which means that today’s college graduate is smarter than their 1950s counterparts, right?  Even though 40% of college students cannot get a degree in six years, greater than 40% of all the grades disseminated are “A’s.”  The reason is grade inflation and grade inflation must stop.  This is born of a perverse teaching evaluation system where student evaluations of professors are given greater weight than they are due.  What better way to get a positive review than to give an A when a B or C is the reality?  Therefore to guard against this tendency, class rank as well as final grade should be figured into one’s GPA.  Some schools give departments quotas on handing out A’s to the truly worthy.  They also have capped GPA scores.

In a previous article, I mentioned the 3-year degree option which many schools oppose.  The Left is fond of European ideas and this is exactly how they do it in Europe.  It is also why college costs are relatively lower than in the US.  Many fourth year courses are unnecessary towards a degree.  If need be, successful completion of proficiency exams could suffice for actually taking a class.  At the very least, colleges need to diversify the menu of choices and pathways towards a degree.

Besides a menu of choices, there should be variable pricing.  For example, a college charges $10,000 tuition for 8 classes over two semesters which is $1,250 per class.  Provided it is not a mandatory introductory class towards a major field of study, why not charge more for a high-demand class and less for a low-demand class?  Colleges complain about year round study and low attendance at summer sessions.  Why not charge less for a summer semester?  Simply, end the all classes are priced equally mentality.  Also, the racket of student fees is a disgrace.  Allow variable meal plans that meet student needs, not the assumption they will eat three meals a day every day.  And students are often assessed fees for services they will never use.  Fees for non-educational services should be optional and paid for only those services actually used.

One of the most interesting developments of late is income sharing agreements.  Here, private industry agrees to pay a portion of the student’s tuition in exchange for a percentage of their income after graduation.  Laws should be enacted to ensure enforcement of the contracts.  Another program worthy of investigation is having the private sector pay for a student’s tuition in exchange for future employment at a lower rate of pay.  For example, assume Shell Oil needs geologists and they pay the tuition of a geology major.  Upon graduation, they are hired.  If the standard starting salary is $100,000, pay them $85,000 until the tuition is “paid back.”  Both of these proposals would likely need legislation to enforce the contractual relationship.  Some on the Left may view this as selling oneself into “slavery.”  Instead, it should be viewed as paying back on an investment.

Some have proposed a national college exit examination before graduation.  This makes intuitive sense to make sure that the graduate can read and write and do simple algebra.  They should also be tested on general issues of history, economics, civics, literature and philosophy besides questions in their major area of study.  If this is to be the case, the federal government should not devise nor administer the test.  A private agency like the College Board, ETS, or even Underwriter Laboratories can do it.  Most states mandate that a student pass a high school proficiency test before graduation.  Why not colleges also?

Although not everyone is four-year college material, that does not mean they are not community college material.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that more than half of the 30 most in-demand jobs do NOT require a 4-year degree.  This writer would be more apt to have states “pay for” a student’s tuition at a community college IF they are pursuing an associate’s degree in a high-demand area.  And assuming they gain employment and advancement requires a 4-year degree, successful work experience and previously obtained community college credits should automatically transfer and be accounted for at the 4-year college.

The final area of concern is post-graduate education which is even more expensive.  Take the case of a law school.  The basics are taught in the first year with the second and third concentrating on areas of interest to the student.  Why not basics in year one, student interests half of year two followed by 1-1/2 years of practical experience.  Legal internships under the watchful eye of professors and mentors at, for example, legal clinics for low income people should be part of the process.  With medical education, the length of medical residencies can be reduced.  And provided the student passes the requisite exam (MCAT, LSAT, GRE), why not admit them to post-graduate programs after three years of undergraduate study and award the BA/BS even though they do not have the requisite number of credits?

All these ideas are worthy of study and implementation.  The status quo will resist innovation and that is the biggest obstacle that colleges, families and students must overcome.