With a child out of college, one in college and two others to follow, college education and its value has become the topic of the decade for us. I have spent years planning with clients for the eventuality of paying for college and now, as the paying parent, I can tell you that writing those checks each year is painful, frustrating and frankly makes you question its value.
With the global market becoming just that, global, competition for jobs has never been fiercer. The last recession in the US and Europe has only intensified the job hunt for those first exiting college. It is that delay in starting a career that may be a financial problem that will take years to catch up from. It is now that many are questioning the value of education and the actual process of getting that education.
After World War II soldiers who came back from war were able to attend college with the aid of the GI Bill. Since then our society has regarded that high school graduates go on to college as a matter of course. The four years spent in an undergraduate program was regarded as a growth experience, a chance to explore different subject matters, expand ones horizons, in short, find one self.
When the cost of college represented a single digit allocation of the household's budget, paying for your child "to find herself" was doable. However, as per Fin Aid survey, in any 17-year period from 1958 to 2001, the average annual tuition inflation rate was between 6% and 9%, ranging from 1.2 times general inflation to 2.1 times general inflation. On average, tuition tends to increase about 8% per year. An 8% college inflation rate means that the cost of college doubles every nine years. With the tuition to private liberal arts college now running in the $50,000 range and state colleges in the $24,000 range, this cost increases has made college education a hardship to most middle class families, and an impossible dream to many lower-income families.
What can we do?
Well, let's start by differentiating the different levels of education. It is already a given that in this country every citizen has access to K-12th grade education. When it comes to post high school education, I think we can learn from the European system and segment that part of our education system differently. First, education on the college level should not be seen as a "book learning" experience only. Not every student is capable or desires to sit in a classroom and study. Learning a trade, although available through some schools, is still seen as sub-par and not for the "smart” kids. Let's face it college is a business and profit drives the bottom line. A two year mechanic’s certification carries with it a far lower profit margin then a four year Bachelor of Arts degree.
The drive to push our kids to four year colleges seems to have never been more important as the numbers clearly show in the unemployment numbers for August 2011. The statistics show that there is an unemployment rate of 14.2% for those with less than a high school degree, 10.2% rate for those with high school degrees but no college degree, 8.7% rate for some college degrees and a 4.6% rate of unemployment for those with bachelor degrees and higher.
What frustrates me is that the four year college spends time forcing students to retake subjects they already completed in high school prolonging their time in college by sometimes as much as two years to just get the basics covered before they start focusing on a major. Why not have a college BA degree be the first step in introducing a student to a possible career path. Whether it's accounting, nursing or law, let the college experience actually be hands on training versus a “feel-good” subject matter that ultimately has no relevance to their livelihood.
I fear that as we continue with business as usual more and more of our youth left without work or job prospects, will become left out of the American Dream and while street protests and violence has been the hallmark of the youth overseas against their exclusion, the same problems and outbursts are not inevitable here in the US if we ignore the fact that as our middle class shrinks, the cost of education continues to spiral out the reach of many in our nation, social unrest will inevitably come to our shores.
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