Monday, March 26, 2012


 I’d guess that many of you, like me, have been awestruck by what it costs to send a kid to college these days.  A year at a top school costs more than I made until I was more than 15 years out of graduate school. 

Even worse, many of the kids aren’t learning much.  In January of 2011, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia published a study entitled “Academically Adrift”. The study revealed that 45% of four year college students from the class of 2009 “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college and that 36% had the same outcome after completing their entire college career!!

That’s not surprising given the very modest academic requirements college administrators impose on their students.  In recent studies, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni has found that 95% of schools do not require students to take a basic course in Economics, despite the fact that without a basic grasp of the subject, it’s impossible for citizens to understand the world they live in. 85% of schools do not require an intermediate-level grasp of a foreign language, 80% do not require a basic course in American history, 62% do not require a course in either world or western literature, and 34% do not require a college level mathematics course.  And 16% of our colleges do not even require a basic course in English composition – which explains why so many college graduates cannot write coherently.

As an alternative to the core requirements most of us remember from our college days, schools now offer hundreds of alternatives that students can use to satisfy what most schools characterize as distribution requirements.  Unfortunately, this proliferation of courses is a major factor in driving costs ever higher, since employing professors who choose to teach highly specialized courses drives up total academic salaries and decreases academic productivity.
In addition to driving up costs, the proliferation of courses calls into question whether students who do not participate in a common core of academic preparation  can achieve  the presumed objectives of education – acquiring a broad knowledge of subjects relevant to being a citizen, a voter and a participant in an economic life which is more changeable than static. 
At the University of Wisconsin, for example,  the “Humanities, Literature and the Arts” requirement can be satisfied with courses on “Costume Design II”, “Introduction to Television” and “Critical Internet Studies”. At San Francisco State, students who do not want to take “Introduction to World Literature” to satisfy the “Humanities and Creative Arts” requirement can substitute “Arts and Crafts for Leisure” or “Contemporary Design in Housing and Interiors”.  The list of absurd choices is endless.

Meanwhile, colleges continue to build new facilities, despite their underutilization of existing facilities.  To do so, colleges typically incur debt, which must be covered with higher tuition charges. At universities across the country, buildings sit empty on many days. The Saturday and Monday classes we all dreaded during our college years have disappeared, as instructors and students express their preference for light workloads and short weeks by jamming classes into the preferred Tuesday to Thursday window.   

In January of 2012, reacting to a report that highlighted the proliferation of academic programs and the University of Maine’s seemingly insatiable appetite for new construction, the board of trustees  froze tuition for in- state residents. For the first time in 25 years, Maine residents will not see a tuition hike at their state university.       
As we all know, one of our society’s problems is the number of people graduating from college – or attending but not graduating – who are burdened with enormous debts. Many factors contribute to this problem.  One is the inadequacy of career counseling and the unavailability of good apprenticeship programs to direct those without academic inclinations to schools where they can acquire the skills needed for high technology manufacturing and the many skilled trades.   Another is the inclination of parents to push students who are not college- ready to enroll in programs they cannot complete. Still another is the willingness of colleges and universities to encourage students to use readily available taxpayer- funded loan programs to fill out their enrollment requirements.  

Many students incur debt and never graduate, thus handicapping themselves both academically and financially for the years ahead.  Among those who graduate, the scarcity of good jobs and the burden of their debts drive many home to their parents.  Even for those able to live independently, however, substantial debt breeds insecurity and risk aversion among the young people we hope will start businesses and explore new technologies, thus reducing the dynamism of our society and the presumed value of higher education.

There is another problem as well.  As costs have soared and the number of  indebted graduates has risen, many able students have chosen not to take on the financial burden required to finance  the education they need to achieve their full potential.  Our country’s future depends on an educated and capable work force; we cannot afford to bypass the capabilities of the many young people now opting out of higher education.    

Is there a solution?  Sure, but like most problems, this one requires that more of us get involved.  Everyone with a stake in higher education – citizens, taxpayers, prospective students, students, parents and grandparents – needs to insist on a much higher level of accountability from the administrators and trustees of our colleges and universities.   

When considering attending or contributing to a school, we need to ask harder and more insightful questions.  Is there a rigorous core curriculum?  Does it include all the essential academic components? How many hours does the typical professor teach per week and how is academic productivity measured?  How many new programs have been opened during the last 10 years and how many have been discontinued?  What are the occupancy levels of academic buildings by day of the week?  What percentage of revenues flows to administrative costs, what percentage is devoted to instruction and how have those percentages changed during the last 5 years?

You can find out more about the problem – and solutions – by visiting the web site of ACTA, the American Council Trustees and Alumni, where you can find copies of “What will they Learn”, from which I’ve gleaned  many of the facts in this note.   Among other things, a quick pass through the web site will give you a much clearer understanding about what you are buying when you write your next check and a better idea of how you can provide guidance for the students and prospective students in your family.    


  1. The question that must be asked is: why isn't the market correcting this problem?

    Of course, to some extent, it is. The growth of on-line education is driven in large part by cost considerations. (But, since this is a new development, sellers have not had a chance to establish reputations, resulting in severe quality problems among providers.)

    But overall, the quality of higher education declines while its cost increases. How to explain this, since there is a (relatively) free market in higher education?

    I think the problem lies with the buyers: many kids don't WANT to learn about marginal cost theory, Anselm's argument for the existence of God, the causes of the French Revolution, or why absolute time does not exist, when they could be "studying" feminist anthropology or "Arts and Crafts for Leisure", and still get a "degree" after four years of partying.

    As Mr Crandall says, those who pay for this expensive extended holiday are going to have to demand higher standards.

    1. Dear Doug,

      My intention is not to be disrespectful, rather to provoke your own thoughts: consider that while in 1943 it might have been perfectly acceptable to equate feminist anthropology with arts and crafts, but in 2012 it comes off as gravely out of touch at best.

      Mr. Crandall, thank you for your insights, particularly on the correlation between student debt and its reverberative effects on choice of employment (or lack thereof). Please do continue to post, your articles are earnest and refreshing!