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Diverse Conversations: The Failure of Higher Education

Peter StokesPeter StokesGrowing up, many Americans are told that education is the doorway to happiness and a way to break the cycle of poverty and anti-intellectualism that pervades the country. However, when many college graduates complete their degrees and hit the job trail, their faith in conventional wisdom is often tested. Many of them have a hard time gaining professional employment, and subsequently end up unemployed or underemployed.

Because of this, many people are beginning to question the viability of obtaining a higher education. I sat down with Peter Stokes, Vice President for Global Strategy and Business Development at Northeastern University, to find out if they have a legitimate argument.

More than half of college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. On top of that, many are bogged down with massive amounts of student loan debt. Because of this, many people are beginning to question the viability of obtaining a higher education. In this day and age, is college worth it?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in April of 2013 the unemployment rate for individuals aged 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree was 3.9 percent, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 7.5 percent. That ought to be viewed as good news for those pursuing a college degree. The situation for recent college graduates, of course, is not as rosy. As Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute’s Center on Education and Workforce points out in his May 2013 report “Hard Times,” the unemployment rate for recent college grads is 7.9 percent – not good, but not dramatically worse than the case for the population overall. However, Carnevale also notes that unemployment rates for recent college grads vary significantly by major, with nursing majors facing a 4.8 percent unemployment rate at the low end, and with information systems majors facing a 14.7 percent unemployment rate at the high end. Likewise, naturally, earnings vary considerably by major, on average, and this affects graduates’ ability to manage their debts. Whether college is worth it depends on a number of factors, including the debt required to finance college and the career earnings one can reasonably expect subsequent to attaining a degree, among other matters.

Many also cite the high cost of attending American colleges as a hindrance to attendance. Is this concern justified, or just an excuse?

College pricing varies considerably, and potential debt levels will vary as well. Without question there are cases where individuals have paid significant sums, and incurred significant debt, to acquire a degree that lacks sufficient market currency to make managing that debt easy. And while college prices are rising faster than inflation, there’s little evidence yet to suggest that not going to college – any college – is a better economic decision than going to college for most prospective students.

Are there just some students who are not college material, and for their own sakes should be counseled to pursue other avenues, like vocational schools?

The college participation rate has never been 100 percent. The national rate in 2012, according to BLS, was just over 66 percent, though there can be considerable variation by state, ranging from about 46 percent to 77 percent according to data from 2008. For a variety of reasons, higher education is unlikely to ever be universal.

Most of the people who question whether or not attending college is worth it are analysts and commentators. How does the traditional, college-aged population feel about the viability of college attendance?

It’s difficult to generalize. Personally, I spend more time talking with parents of college-aged children than I do speaking with prospective students, and I live in a state where there is a very high participation rate in postsecondary education, so my perspective is limited by those and other factors. The spectrum of awareness about college costs among today’s graduating high school seniors is likely to be broad. But again, the costs of attending college can vary considerably by type of institution. I know more parents are stressed about college costs – not only from what I read, see, and hear in the media, but also from conversations with my neighbors. There’s certainly evidence that many parents are looking to economize in a wide variety of areas, including their education investments for their children. But college participation rates are not yet falling, so by and large the populations you would expect to go to college are going to college.

If you had 3 wishes and make three changes in higher education, what would they be?

We do need greater transparency about the cost to families for sending their family members to college. Net price calculators are a step in the right direction, but we need more education to support financial literacy. I’d also like to see more analysis undertaken to examine what happens when higher education transitions from being perceived as a public good, as it was decades ago when as much as 80 percent of a public university’s expenses might be covered by the state, to being perceived as a private good, as it is increasingly viewed today and where public universities on average have only about 20 percent of expenses covered by state budgets. Sometimes those figures are in the single digits. Do economies perform better under one scenario or the other? We need a better understanding of this sort of question. And finally, I’d like to see the regulatory apparatus support increased innovation. Accreditation is – both in a good sense and a bad sense – a self-replicating process. That’s good because it sets a certain standard, but it’s bad because it limits new approaches. I’d like to see the U.S. Department of Education create a demonstration program that would allow a small number of unaccredited organizations to award degrees under close supervision to see what new models – potentially more cost effective and academically effective models – might emerge.

Well, that concludes my interview with Peter Stokes. I would like to thank him for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak with us.

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