higher ed reform

The New York Times is running a story today on a problem that we all know exists. And it seems to be getting worse, not better.

The college degree is now the equivalent of a high school diploma–increasingly, it’s a basic requirement for jobs that actually do not require advanced education. And all of the debt and time that goes into obtaining a degree is a burden that even low-paid office workers must now bear.

Imagine racking up $30,000 in college debt so that you can get a $10 per hour job as an office courier. When will the madness end? Here’s an excerpt:

Consider the 45-person law firm of Busch, Slipakoff & Schuh here in Atlanta, a place that has seen tremendous growth in the college-educated population. Like other employers across the country, the firm hires only people with a bachelor’s degree, even for jobs that do not require college-level skills.

This prerequisite applies to everyone, including the receptionist, paralegals, administrative assistants and file clerks. Even the office “runner” — the in-house courier who, for $10 an hour, ferries documents back and forth between the courthouse and the office — went to a four-year school.

“College graduates are just more career-oriented,” said Adam Slipakoff, the firm’s managing partner. “Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They’re not just looking for a paycheck.”

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters…

You have to ask yourself: Why?

Is this simply because Americans have bought into the idea that a college degree = financial security? If so, than the bachelor’s degree is less likely than ever to deliver on such a promise. Ironically, degree inflation has a kind of self-perpetuating effect on the labor market. Those without a B.A., as the NY Times, points out, are being pushed even further down the food chain.

Now high school graduates are being told that they are unqualified for jobs that they used to be able to get. So the pressure to get a B.A. is higher than ever. Yet, because everyone is getting one, the actual market value of a degree is diminishing relative to others in the market (who also almost all have B.A.’s). It’s a vicious cycle. The only winners are the high-paid college administrators and faculty who are making themselves, in many cases, quite wealthy off of the tuition dollars of young people who are destined for low-paying, entry level jobs.

It’s time for employers to wise up and offer talented workers an alternative path to meaningful careers. What if a few innovative companies, say in the technology sector, for instance, started hiring ultra talented students directly out high school with the promise of good pay and upwardly mobile career paths? That might shake things up.

Wouldn’t you know it–it’s already beginning to happen, as the San Antonio Express-News reported in this story last year:

“Information technology is so big and open and there are so many jobs, they are paying an 18-year-old good money to do this work,” said Ricky Banda, who graduated in May from Southwest High School and is already working full time in the field.

After Banda was part of a team that brought home a prize in the CyberPatriot national high school cybersecurity competition, the Air Force picked him up for a network security defense analyst internship his senior year. He made $12 to $13 an hour — with a government security clearance — at 17. Now with a high school diploma and multiple security and networking certifications, he’s making $43,000 a year interning with Northrop Grumman.

In a similar vein, billionaire Paypal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has gained a lot of attention with his program to pay talented students $100,000 to drop out of college and found tech start-ups.

Mark my words–we’ll see much more of this kind of thing in the future.

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The National Association of Scholars is celebrating its 25th anniversary as one of the nation’s leading advocates for better higher education policy. In celebration of the big two-five, they’ve published a list of 100 very short essays by leading authors, educators and policy experts on how to improve the state of higher education in the U.S.

This special publication includes contributions by some big names, such as Tom Wolfe, Victor Davis Hanson, and even Jill Biden, along with contributions by a few lesser names such as yours truly. Some of the ideas on the list are quite intriguing and other quite provocative.

Here are some brief excerpts–a few glimpses of the “great ideas” on the list:

Will Fitzhugh, Founder, The Concord Review“It would be great and interesting for all concerned if every college student had to present a one-hour talk on some topic on which he had recently done research…”

Joseph Epstein, Author, most recently of Essays in Biography
“The condition of undergraduate education strikes me as so sad, so wildly screwed up, and so heavily screened off from reality that no single sweeping reform is likely to help. A number of small reforms, though, might make for a beginning. Two I suggest are a dress code and a rigid protocol of address. I suggest these not for students, but for faculty…”

George Dent, Professor of Law, Case Western Reserve University School of Law
“Big-time sports are corrupting higher education. They should be abolished…”

Andrew Gillen, Research Director, Education Sector
“As college costs continually rise, students are increasingly concerned with the impact attending college will have on future jobs and earnings. Yet virtually no data exist to help inform this important decision…”

Charles Mitchell,
Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Commonwealth Foundation
“Five words: mandatory physical labor, every student…”

Charles Murray
, W.H. Brady Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
“Pass a federal law that no teacher in a college or university that receives federal funds shall be allowed to award an A to more than 7 percent of the students in any course…”

Bradley C. S. Watson
, Philip M. McKenna Professor of Politics; Co-Director, Center for Political and Economic Thought, Saint Vincent College
“Rely on primary sources exclusively. This can be done readily in most social sciences and humanities disciplines. Even most natural science disciplines could assign more primary source readings to good effect…”

And finally, the always lively T. Wolfe:

Tom Wolfe
, Ph.D., American Studies, Yale, 1957; Author, Back to Blood

“1. Cut undergraduate education from four years to two…

2. Limit the curriculum, over the two years, to remedial education and core subjects…

3. Male students will have a dress code requiring long-sleeved cotton shirts (ties optional) and conventionally cut jackets—e.g., no jacket collars wider than the lapels—whenever they are on campus. Female students will abide by a dress code that, without saying so, makes it impossible to dress in the currently highly fashionable (among young women) slut style.

If the students complain that these codes make them look different from most other people their age, the reply is, ‘Now you’re catching on.'”

A lot to chew on in this list–occasions to either nod in agreement, or shake one’s head in disbelief. It’s a lengthy but stimulating read.

See the full article at the National Association of Scholars website.

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