The National Conference of State Legislatures has just released a report saying that higher education is in urgent need of reform. Here is the press release.
Some of the recommendations are unexceptionable, such as: spend dollars more productively, help bright kids get into college earlier, and pay attention to the needs of adult learners.
On the other hand, some of the recommendations reflect the conventional wisdom that more higher education is necessarily better. It admonishes states to identify “leaks in the student pipeline” so that more will finish college. The trouble, as I have argued many times, is that we are already overselling higher education. We lure large numbers of academically indifferent kids into college, take their money for several years, then pat them on the head and hand them a degree. Many have learned little that’s of any benefit, and, in a job market that’s glutted with similar graduates, end up doing work that most kids in high school could be trained to do. The supposed need to put more Americans through college just because some other nations are “outperforming” us is entirely unpersuasive.
Similarly, the report says that legislators need to find ways to reduce student borrowing. It points to the increasing average student debt level and claims that legislators “must find a way to reduce this drain on the state economy.” This makes it sound as though paying off borrowed money is a “drain,” but the real drain is in the large state expenditures for higher education that have scant educational value. The problem is not student debt per se, but the extent to which their debts have been unnecessarily inflated because state universities generally don’t get much productivity for the dollar.
Finally, the report encourages states to “ensure that students graduate.” The trouble is that many students figure out while in college (usually in the first year) that it just isn’t the best option for them. Some realize that, despite all the “you’ve got to get a degree” talk they’ve heard, spending four or more years doing school stuff will make them miserable and do little to enhance their employability. For people like that, dropping out is the correcting of a mistake.