Vernuccio’s View: Have Universities Damaged the U.S.? Part 1

Have universities damaged the U.S.? We begin a two-part review of the impact soaring tuition rates and the “college for all” movement has had on the lives of Americans.

For decades, a college education was a means to enhance earning ability, for those with the aptitude to utilize what they were taught, in a gainful career. But as the “college for all” mantra took hold throughout the American educational establishment, a college degree essentially took the place of high school degrees of times past.

As tuition skyrocketed, that meant that students and their families were going deeply into debt to gain a degree that, for many, led to jobs that in the past could have been obtained for the free cost of a public high school education.

Stunning tuition cost hikes have outpaced price increases in just about every other area. U.S. News reported in 2013 that “According to data from the Labor Department, the price index for college tuition grew by nearly 80 percent between August 2003 and August 2013. That is nearly twice as fast as growth in costs in medical care, another area widely recognized for fast-rising prices. It’s also more than twice as fast as the overall consumer price index during that same period.” During that time period, college tuition increased 79.5%, while the Consumer Price index increased only 26.7%, medical care, 43.1%, food and beverages, 31.2%, and housing 22.8%.

The money hasn’t gone into improving the educational experience of students, and it hasn’t gone into the salaries of professors. A Washington Monthly review  found that “as colleges and universities have had more money to spend, they have not chosen to spend it on expanding their instructional resources—that is, on paying faculty. They have chosen, instead, to enhance their administrative and staff resources. A comprehensive study published by the Delta Cost Project in 2010 reported that between 1998 and 2008, America’s private colleges increased spending on instruction by 22 percent while increasing spending on administration and staff support by 36 percent. Parents who wonder why college tuition is so high and why it increases so much each year may be less than pleased to learn that their sons and daughters will have an opportunity to interact with more administrators and staffers… Over the past four decades…the number of full-time professors or “full-time equivalents”—that is, slots filled by two or more part-time faculty members whose combined hours equal those of a full-timer—increased slightly more than 50 percent. That percentage is comparable to the growth in student enrollments during the same time period. But the number of administrators and administrative staffers employed by those schools increased by an astonishing 85 percent and 240 percent, respectively.”

Liz Peek, writing in The Fiscal Times, found that “Between 2000 and 2010…The portion [of students] receiving federal aid skyrocketed from 31.6 percent to 47.8 percent, and the average award nearly doubled. In addition, the percentage taking out student loans climbed from 40.1 percent to 50.1 percent, and the average borrowing rose 76 percent. The ramp-up in loans to students has not only driven up costs but has undermined the value of a college degree. Some 30 percent of people ages 25 to 29 are college graduates today, up from 12 percent in the 1970s…Richard Vedder, economics professor at Ohio University, has written that we have one million retail sales clerks and 115,000 janitors with college diplomas. At the same time, one fifth of the country’s managers say they can’t find skilled workers to fill job openings.”

The Huffington Post asks, “A college degree is great, but is it necessary for everyone, and at what cost (literally) are we willing to pay for this social experiment? …We overhyped a college education and as a result we may have destroyed the American Dream…Millennials have contributed $1 trillion to the national student loan debt [Bloomberg] Millennials are the most educated generation in human history, yet they have the highest share of people who are unemployed in the last 40 years [USA Today] 48% of employed college graduates have jobs that do not require a four-year degree. [Forbes]…When you compare the student loan crisis to the mortgage crisis that triggered The Great Recession, at least the government and lenders had something tangible they could take to sell. In that instance it was property. You can’t take and resell knowledge from the brains of college graduates or college drop-outs…Once the student loan bubble bursts, we will be in a world of trouble.”

Have Universities Damaged America concludes next week.

Frank Vernuccio serves as editor-in-chief of the New York Analysis of Policy & Government

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