Is A Higher Education Reckoning Brewing?

If you’ve wondered over the last few months whether or not the recent “turmoil” in the for-profit education industry has reached the mainstream, I think I have your answer:

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Stephen Colbert University – Andrew Hacker
Colbert Report Full Episodes 2010 Election Fox News

You know you’re becoming top-of-mind when you get featured on something like The Daily Show or The Colbert Report. Obviously, the above clip is meant to be humorous, but it causes me to wonder if the higher education industry should be preparing for a reckoning. Here’s why…

At the start of the clip, Colbert mentions that the average college graduate earns twice what someone without a degree earns; timely information considering the current worldwide economic slump. Millions of Americans are either out of work, or not earning what they need to, and will likely appreciate any opportunity to gain employment or increase their earning potential.

Colbert then goes into some detail about the for-profit sector, poking fun at the relatively high cost of earning a degree, highlighting some of their recruitment tactics, and mentioning that companies like Goldman Sachs own large pieces of some companies. He even goes as far as to announce his new school, “Stephen Colbert ‘University'” (notice how he puts “University” in quotations). Basically, Colbert is suggesting that anyone can now sell an online education, regardless of whether the education is worth it, and he wants in on the action.

Colbert focuses on the for-profit industry in his skit, but his guest Andrew Hacker, who recently co-authored the book Higher Education? (featured in the clip), suggests not-for-profits are also at fault. In the book, the authors state some interesting facts that could explain why roughly 30% of enrolling students drop out of college after only a few months:

  • Over the past 30 years, the average cost of college tuition and fees has risen 250% for private schools and nearly 300% for public schools (in constant dollars).
  • The salaries of professors and administrators have also increased much faster than other occupations. At Stanford, the salaries of full-time professors have increased 58% since the mid-1980s. And from 1992 to 2008, NYU’s presidential salary climbed to $1.27 million from $443,000.
  • Professors are spending less time with students. In 1975, 43% of college teachers were “contingent”–or temporary instructors and graduate students; today that rate is 70%.
  • Many institutions brag of high faculty-to-student ratios, but most courses have a part-timer at the podium.

One of the most relevant criticisms Hacker has of the current higher education system, however, is the decreased power of the degree. In the past, a lot of the criticism about academia didn’t stick because once you had that golden degree job offers would follow. But with a recessionary economy and tales of recent Wharton MBA’s taking jobs as Starbuck’s baristas to repay their massive student loans, college and even graduate school degrees no longer hold the same clout they once did.

At the end of the clip Colbert asks Hacker, “Is college worth it?” Hacker responds with, “Yes,” but is immediately cut off by Colbert and the segment ends. Had he been able to finish, I think he would have said something to the effect of, “Yes, but you need to go to the right college.”

What’s the right college?

Simply put, it’s one that gives you the skills necessary to excel in your career, advances your potential to earn a higher income, and does both of those things without burdening students with more debt than they can handle. It’s not really an issue of for-profit versus not-for-profit because there is evidence that both have the ability to do all three. However, I think it behooves both for-profit and non-profit institutions to review how they currently deliver on their educational mission, and be sure the quality is there. As I mentioned in a previous post (The Value of the For-Profit Model in Higher Education), for-profit institutions have already blazed the trail on utilizing technology to improve teaching and learning. But if all schools fail to make the proper adjustments, they could quickly find themselves late night television fodder.

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