College just ain't the value proposition it used to be. (John T. Greilick / The Detroit News)
President Barack Obama is correct in wanting to make higher education more affordable and accessible, but Americans would also be correct in wondering just what they’re paying for.
The need for a better-educated populace is beyond dispute. Without critical thinking skills and a solid background in history, the arts and sciences, how can a nation hope to govern itself?
The problem isn’t only that higher education is unaffordable to many but that even at our highest-ranked colleges and universities, students aren’t getting much bang for their buck.
Since 1985, the price of higher education has increased 538 percent, according to a new study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that encourages trustees and alumni to foster improvement where institutions may be reluctant to go against popular trends.
For perspective, compare tuition increases to a “mere” 286 percent increase in medical costs and a 121 percent increase in the consumer price index during the same period, according to ACTA.
Although the council confined its research in this study — “Education or Reputation?” — to the 29 top-ranked liberal-arts schools in the nation, where tuition, boarding and books typically run more than $50,000 per year, the trends highlighted are not confined to smaller, elite institutions. These include an increasing lack of academic rigor, grade inflation, high administrative costs and a lack of intellectual diversity.
While these recent findings are not so surprising to those who follow such studies, one can still be stunned by what can only be described as a breach of trust between colleges and the students they attract with diversions and amenities that have little bearing on education and will be of little use in the job market.
Out of the 29 colleges evaluated, 22 have administrative budgets that are at least one-third of what the schools spend on instruction. More than a third of the college presidents earn as much or more than the president of the United States ($400,000), for running schools, many of which have fewer than 2,000 students.
Other findings of the 46-page report are equally compelling but too lengthy for this space. Summed up: American students are paying too much for too little — and this, too, should concern Obama as he examines ways to make college more affordable. Getting people into college is only half the battle. Getting them out with a useful education seems an equal challenge.
Kathleen Parker writes for The Washington Post.