The University Has No Clothes

Monday, May 16th, 2011

The university has no clothes:

This new criticism of higher education comes from three main sources. The first is the reality that, while all parents want their kids to complete college, little more than half of those millions who haul their laptops to campus each fall actually end up with a bachelor’s degree. The United States now has the highest college-dropout rate in the industrialized world, and in terms of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees, it has fallen from first to twelfth.

The second source is the quality of the education available on campus. Nearly half of all students demonstrate “exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent” gains in the skills measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, even after two years of full-time schooling, according to a study begun in 2005 by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. (Many education reformers have focused their attention to gains from investments on the other end of the spectrum, in pre-K schooling.) In 1961, the average undergraduate spent 25 hours a week hitting the books; by 2003, economists Mindy Marks and Philip Babcock recently found, that average had plummeted to thirteen hours. In a typical semester, one third of the students Arum and Roksa followed for their recent book, Academically Adrift, did not take “any courses that required more than forty pages of reading per week” and half did not take “a single course that required more than twenty pages of writing.”

But it is the data on the economics of college that is most disturbing. It’s bad enough that our colleges are under­performing, one can’t help thinking — but do they have to charge so damned much? In the past 30 years, private­-college tuition and fees have increased, in constant 2010 dollars, from $9,500 a year to more than $27,000. Public-college tuition has increased from $2,100 to $7,600. Fifteen years ago, the average student debt at graduation was around $12,700; in 2009, it was $24,000. Over the past quarter-century, the total cost of higher education has grown by 440 percent. “Like many situations too good to be true,” Louis Lataif, the dean emeritus of Boston University’s School of Management, wrote in February for Forbes, “like the dot-com boom, the Enron bubble, the housing boom or the health-care-cost explosion — the ever-increasing cost of university education is not sustainable.”


  1. Ben says:

    Student loan debt now exceeds outstanding credit card debt. (Schumpeter, 15 Apr Economist)

    On a per-school basis, as much as 90% of the paying customers are paying with federal funds, or federally-guaranteed funds. Crossing the federally-mandated 90/10 boundary (feds can’t guarantee more than 90% of school funds) is one reason schools raise the tuition of their paying clients. (Colleges Scramble to Avoid Violating Federal-Aid Limit)

    Lovely, eh?

    Meanwhile, have you tried to have a conversation that lasts more than three sentences lately? “He’s dead, Jim!

    Wonder what the sound of this bubble popping will sound like?

  2. Isegoria says:

    Yes, watching the educational bubble pop could get very interesting.

    A rational response, which we likely won’t see, would be an enormous drop in non-STEM degrees pursued and some recognition that not everyone is cut out for every program that will take their money for a semester or two.

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