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The diminishing returns of a college education

Washington Post Writers GroupFebruary 5, 2014 

— President Obama is correct in wanting to make higher education more affordable and accessible, but Americans would also be correct in wondering just what they’re paying for.

The need for a better-educated populace is beyond dispute. Without critical thinking skills and a solid background in history, the arts and sciences, how can a nation hope to govern itself?

Answer: Look around.

The problem isn’t only that higher education is unaffordable to many but that even at our highest-ranked colleges and universities, students aren’t getting much bang for their buck.

Since 1985, the price of higher education has increased 538 percent, according to a new study from the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group that encourages trustees and alumni to foster improvement where institutions may be reluctant to go against popular trends.

For perspective, compare tuition increases to a “mere” 286 percent increase in medical costs and a 121 percent increase in the consumer price index during the same period.

Although the council confined its research in this study – “Education or Reputation?” – to the 29 top-ranked liberal-arts schools in the nation – where tuition, boarding and books typically run more than $50,000 per year – the trends highlighted are not confined to smaller, elite institutions. These include an increasing lack of academic rigor, grade inflation, high administrative costs and a lack of intellectual diversity.

While these recent findings are not so surprising to those who follow such studies, one can still be stunned by what can only be described as a breach of trust between colleges and the students they attract with diversions and amenities that have little bearing on education and will be of little use in the job market.


One need only be reminded of the recent scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where a whistleblower revealed that phony classes and fake grades have been offered mostly to athletes since the 1990s.

UNC, one of the historically great institutions of higher learning, quite apart from its legendary basketball team, is scrambling now to repair its damaged reputation with oversight and other fixes. But reputations, cultivated over decades and sometimes centuries, are like love – hard to repair once trust is broken.

On the flip side, ACTA proposes that many schools, rather than offering the educational quality that earned them a golden reputation in the first place, often depend on public reverence for the past rather than on present performance.

Of great concern is the diminishing focus on core curriculums – the traditional arts and science coursework essential to developing critical thinking necessary for civic participation. Among the 29 schools surveyed by ACTA, only three require U.S. government or history, just two require economics and five colleges have no requirements at all.

In a separate study, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy found that though Americans pay the highest per pupil tuition rates in the world, most graduates fall below proficiency in such simple cognitive tasks as comparing viewpoints in two editorials or buying food when given in price per ounce.


Instead of the basics, students might look forward to more entertaining fare, such as Middlebury College’s “Mad Men and Mad Women,” an examination of masculinity and femininity in mid-20th-century America via the television show “Mad Men.”

I confess I’d enjoy a dinner discussion along these lines, but as an education consumer, I’m not sure a semester-long investigation is worth even a tiny percentage of the tuition. ACTA President Anne Neal acknowledges that such courses may be interesting and even valuable.

“What we do question, however, is allowing such classes to stand in lieu of a broad-based American history or government requirement,” she said, “when we know how severely lacking students’ historical literacy can be.”

Given the ever-escalating tuition costs, one may wonder where all that money is going.

Out of the 29 colleges evaluated, 22 have administrative budgets that are at least one-third of what the schools spend on instruction. More than a third of the college presidents earn as much or more than the president of the United States ($400,000), for running schools, many of which have fewer than 2,000 students.

Other findings of the 46-page report are equally compelling but too lengthy for this space. Summed up: American students are paying too much for too little – and this, too, should concern Obama as he examines ways to make college more affordable. Getting people into college is only half the battle. Getting them out with a useful education seems an equal challenge.

Washington Post Writers Group

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