By Peter Morici
Hillary Clinton’s plan to make college free for low- and middle-income families does not address the most fundamental challenges in higher education. No matter who pays, universities have become costly and wasteful and do a poor job of equipping young people to earn a living.
In this century, college tuition and fees are up 149 percent, whereas health care and overall consumer prices have increased only 81 percent and 42 percent.
University presidents are quick to cite cuts in public funding for higher education. Since the financial crisis, states have reduced per student contributions by about 17 percent, but that has not kept university administrators from spending ever larger sums.
From 2007 to 2013, enrollment at state-sponsored institutions increased 12 percent, while outlays jumped by twice as much.
A year or two of training beyond high school or a college degree increasingly is required to obtain a decent paying job, because the number of routine positions – such as assemblers in factories and clerical workers – has generally stagnated.
Meanwhile, the demand for specialized technicians – such as those servicing factory automation equipment – and workers with executive skills and expertise normally associated with a college education – such as project managers and engineers – continues to grow.
President Obama has urged young people to extend their education beyond high school and to borrow to pay for it – outstanding student debt has reached $1.2 trillion. However, fewer than 40 percent of 12th graders are ready for reading and math at the college level.
Institutions are under pressure from the Department of Education to increase enrollment of minority and low-income students. This often results in more highly selective colleges and universities admitting students who are not academically competitive with their broader student bodies and who might have been better placed at less prestigious institutions.
Together, these require institutions to spend large sums on remedial programs, but it is simply too difficult to lift most students who enter with substandard basic skills or uncompetitive high school backgrounds through a summer bootstrap program or several hours a week of tutoring while enrolled in regular classes. Consequently, many of those students drop out and the burden of student debt and defaults is particularly acute among minority and low-income students.
Teaching even well qualified undergraduates to think clearly and analyze issues with detachment from personal prejudices is difficult and demanding work. Too often college faculty, outside the hard sciences and quantitative disciplines, appear more interested in imparting their liberal views on social issues than requiring students to accomplish genuine competency in their subjects.
Forty-six years ago when I started teaching, university faculty general taught 12 hours each academic year and advised graduate students. These days teaching loads of 6 and 9 hours are common, and undergraduate courses are increasingly staffed by adjunct and part-time faculty and graduate assistants who lack an adequate grasp of the disciplines they teach, pedagogical skills or facility with the English language.
It should be no surprise that four in 10 college graduates lack the problem solving and critical thinking skills required for white-collar professional work, and more than 35 percent of undergraduates exhibit no intellectual progress between their freshman and senior years.
Most of the additional money universities have been raking in has not gone into faculty salaries but instead into amenities, such as lavish student centers, athletic and entertainment facilities and hotel-like residence halls, big perks and high salaries for university presidents and senior administrators, and armies of new bureaucrats whose educational value added is dubious.
Americans are investing too much in higher education and getting back too little, and the resulting shortage of genuinely qualified workers is a barrier to more robust economic growth.
As with health care, the United States spends a larger share of GDP on higher education and gets less for its money than other advanced industrialized countries.
And like the Affordable Care Act, Mrs. Clinton’s proposal is quite specific about the taxes she would levy on high-income families to offer 80 percent of all young people free tuition at community colleges and state universities, but is vague about lowering costs and imposing standards of productivity and performance.
In the end, universities will be jammed with even more applications from unqualified students, waste even more money and continue to do what they seem to do best – grant degrees to the intellectually illiterate.
Peter Morici is a professor at the University of Maryland School of Business and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.