College tuition continues to grow. Student loan debt reached almost $1 Trillion last year. College graduates are out of work. Higher education as the route to success in America is under review. Follow the debate.

Why Americans Have Lost Faith in the Value of College

from The Wall Street Journal,

The political turmoil that rocked universities over the past three months and sparked the resignations of two Ivy League presidents has landed like an unwelcome thud on institutions already struggling to maintain the trust of the American public. For three generations, the national aspiration to “college for all” shaped America’s economy and culture, as most high-school graduates took it for granted that they would earn a degree. That consensus is now collapsing in the face of massive student debt, underemployed degree-holders and political intolerance on campus. In the past decade, the percentage of Americans who expressed a lot of confidence in higher education fell from 57% to 36%, according to Gallup. A decline in undergraduate enrollment since 2011 has translated into 3 million fewer students on campus. Nearly half of parents say they would prefer not to send their children to a four-year college after high school, even if there were no obstacles, financial or otherwise. Two-thirds of high-school students think they will be just fine without a college degree. The pandemic drove home a sobering realization for a lot of middle-class American families: “College for all” is broken for most.

So how did one of the crown jewels of American society squander so much confidence so quickly? If the pandemic marked the moment the “college for all” model finally cracked, 1965 marked its birth. As the baby boomers came of age, the federal government made loans available to any college-bound 18-year-old with a high-school diploma, in order to maintain the most educated workforce in the world. High schools scrapped vocational education programs in favor of college preparatory classes.

In 2021, when Chuck Ambrose became chancellor at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark., the school was in financial peril. The music department had more faculty than graduating students, and none of the 60 academic programs was generating enough revenue to cover its costs, Ambrose said. When he announced that the school was going broke, the faculty rejected his data. Ambrose declared a fiscal “exigency”—the academic equivalent of bankruptcy—and recommended that the school’s board eliminate a third of its teaching positions and nearly half of its degree programs. The faculty asked for his termination, and Ambrose left the next year. “Systems don’t want to change,” Ambrose said. “Problems accumulate and so does culture.” The misalignment between universities and the labor market is compounded by the failure of many schools to teach students to think critically.

Students spend about half as much time studying and attending class as their counterparts did in 1961, but they are three times more likely to earn an A—now the most common grade in colleges across the country. A quarter of college graduates do not have basic skills in numeracy and one in five does not have basic skills in literacy, says Irwin Kirsch, who oversees large-scale assessments for ETS, the company that administers the SAT. Quality control for college degrees falls to accreditors, but they approve programs at hundreds of schools that fail to produce financial value for graduates, and have kept many schools in business with a single-digit graduation rate.

One result of this transactional attitude has been a sharp increase in cheating. College is one of the few products whose consumers try to get as little out of it as possible, because its market value is tied to the credential, not to the education that it is meant to represent...

Cheating is a rational choice on the part of students when credentials are decoupled from learning,

The combination of more college graduates and weaker learning outcomes has diluted the signal provided by a degree from less prestigious colleges. That has led to a host of knock-on effects, including credential inflation, in which employers ask for college degrees for jobs that don’t need one and previously did not require one.

Of 100 random freshmen enrolling in college today, 40 will not graduate. Of the remaining 60 that earn a degree in six years, 20 will end up chronically underemployed. In other words, for every five students who enroll in a four-year college, only two will graduate and find a job based on their degree. A college education is among the largest investments most Americans will make. The total cost of attending a public college is about $36,000 a year, and the average length of time to a degree is nearly five years. Tack on debt service for student loans and the opportunity cost of not working while in school, and the real cost of college can easily pass $300,000—more than the median net worth of most families. That math doesn’t work for a growing number of families.

Now when ... hires new employees he considers a college degree a marker of persistence and discipline, but not knowledge or skill.

The pressure to place less emphasis on four-year degrees is growing, however. In what has been called the “degree reset,” the federal government and several states eliminated the degree requirements for many government jobs.

Companies like IBM and the giant professional services firm Deloitte have too. Last year, a survey of 800 companies by found that 45% intended to eliminate bachelor degree requirements for some positions in 2024.

In place of a degree, some employers are adopting skills-based hiring, looking at what students know as opposed to what credential they hold.

A LinkedIn study published last August found that between 2019 and 2022 there was a 36% increase in job postings that omitted degree requirements—but the actual number of jobs filled with candidates who did not have a degree was much smaller.

“This is a decade-long journey,” said Kwasi Mitchell, Deloitte’s chief purpose and DEI officer. “It’s going to be a little bit of time before we really open the floodgates with respect to skills-first hiring.”

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