American Higher Ed Isn’t Doing the Job
One thing I know is the United States isn’t producing enough college graduates to compete in the global economy
About 30 percent of today’s young people will earn a bachelor’s or higher degree. That just barely exceeds the 27 percent of baby boomers who earned a B.A. And while our country slowed higher education to a crawl, the rest of the world vastly increased their investments. Several small countries have passed the United States in college graduation rates, and now big competitors like Japan, France, and the United Kingdom are closing in.
Don’t blame the young people. Sure the temptations of sex, drugs, and video games fell some promising high schoolers. But most graduates are ready, willing, and able to go on. Rising tuition keeps some out. Cost turns out to be far from the most important impediment, though. Financial aid and loans could solve the higher education problem if cost were the only problem.
Admissions and enrollment are deeper and more difficult problems. America’s colleges and universities turn away millions of applicants every spring. Universities that once had “restrictive” admission rates in the neighborhood of 30 percent now admit 10 percent of applicants. State universities that used to take all high school graduates who had a C or C+ average now reject one-third or more of their applicants.
Once inside the college gate, students bump up against enrollment restrictions. Very few colleges and universities have a reliable system of tying their course offerings to admissions. As a consequence, many freshman end up being denied enrollment in the entry-level courses they’ll need to start working on a major.
My oldest son had that experience. He went to San Francisco State University and told anyone who would listen he was “majoring in left-overs.” He persisted to graduation and is currently putting his creative writing degree to good use working as an accountant in New York City. But many of his cohort didn’t stick it out. After two years of acquiring five-figure debt and left-over courses, they left college for “a semester” to take a job and pay down their debt. Many never made it back. The registrar’s office calls it “stopping out.”
To solve its admissions and enrollment crisis, America needs to reinvigorate public investment in higher education. The private sector charts its own course and responds to market forces too slowly, if at all. Total enrollment at private four-year colleges has grown 0.9 percent per year since 1945 without waver or fluctuation. The privates aren’t keeping up with population growth, let alone responding to the nation’s need for more college graduates.
And why should they? They’re prospering mightily under the present system. Tight admissions hurt young people and the national economy, but the endowments of private universities bloom like never before.
Public investment worked like a charm for the baby boom. In the late 1960s states dramatically created new opportunities by building new campuses and raising enrollment quotas on old ones. The college graduation rate, already rising, accelerated despite unprecedented population growth. The engine of opportunity was running on all cylinders.
Suddenly, in the late 1970s, public four-year institutions stopped growing. Tax revolts, prison-building booms, and unfunded federal mandates for programs like Medicaid eliminated governors’ discretionary spending. Since then we have seen retrenchment and recovery but precious little growth. The engine of opportunity sputtered.
Nobody questions the fact that public investment in higher education pays off for taxpayers. Big studies in Texas and California show each dollar invested in higher education yields between $3 and $5 of returns in the form of future taxes or savings on welfare, prison, and social service spending.
The annual spring panic over college admissions and ever-rising tuition are symptoms of a broken higher education system. The deep source is under-investment. The private sector marches on impervious to outside influences like economic conditions or national priorities. The public sector is shackled by 30 years of anti-tax activism. A few bright spots exist at places like the University of Florida and Arizona State. For the American economy to compete in the 21st century, the rest of the nation will need to expand higher education opportunities.