Insights & Advice

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Should Colleges be free, Part III

College tuition hurts those who need higher education the most– lower-income students. Back in your parent’s era, that may not have been much of a problem thanks to a growing middle class. But in America today, the middle class is disappearing, leaving more of us than ever facing impossible future tuition costs for our children.

College tuition has become the most expensive outlay a family faces after buying a home. Most graduates face years of paying off education loans. Those students who graduated last year will carry an average of $25,250 in debt, a 5% increase versus the year before. It was the first year when student debt surpassed credit card debt in this country.   Why do we do it?

Most studies agree that the marginal value of a year of college education adds around 6% to 10% to annual income. If you hang around long enough for a diploma there is an added bonus, a lifetime earnings increase of as much as $300,000 to $600,000 but the cost versus the benefits are starting to unravel. Education is getting more expensive and the income benefits are getting smaller, especially today. College grads are facing an economy of slow growth with high unemployment where jobs are at a premium and salaries are going down, not up.

It is a determined student, especially in poorer families, who can ignore the messages he receives from as early as the eight grade.

“College is just too expensive. We can’t afford to send you.”

That was the message I received from my folks. Neither of my parents graduated high school.

I opted to join the Marine Corps, fight in Vietnam and four years later attend college on the GI Bill. Today, roughly 100,000 men and women follow that route every year and attend college for free. I believe college should be free for all Americans because, as I’ve written in my last column, college is to today’s generation what high school was to my parents’.

But the most vexing problem with paying for a college education today is the product itself. Aside from acting as a convenient (and expensive) job screen for potential employers, does even a college education prepare students for today and tomorrow’s working world? Taking that question a step further, does our entire educational system in general, prepare our future generation for competing and thriving in today’s rapidly changing globalization process?

 A growing consensus among educators argues no. We are in an age where information changes at lighting speed, where cutting-edge knowledge becomes obsolete in less than a year. In that kind of environment I believe our students should be focused on one purpose: the need to “learn how to learn”. I agree with Walt Kelley (among others) who advocates the same thing in his book “Common Sense, a New Conversation about Public Education”.

Think about it. Today a college graduate’s real learning curve begins the moment they enter the work place. It doesn’t matter whether you join a high-tech start-up, an investment bank on Wall Street or service autos at a garage. Wherever you are, there is a wealth of new knowledge that you must master in order to succeed in whatever you do. And it never ends!

In my own career (and I’m sure in yours as well) I am constantly required to learn and master new subject matter, many times on a daily basis. Over many years, I have acquired a skill set that allows me to digest even the most complex data, integrate it into my knowledge base and communicate it to you the reader in terms that you find comprehensible. 

I have found that most successful individuals I know have acquired these same fundamental educational skills and use them throughout their careers. As applied to our educational system, I believe that beginning in grammar school, students should be taught the foundations of learning how to learn.  Reading, writing, arithmetic, geography, music, art, physical fitness and civil service are the fundamental building blocks that begin that process. There are others, but you get the idea.

 In our high schools this foundation of knowledge should be expanded and integrated one with another. Foreign language, history, economics, ethics, logic (among others) should be mastered, integrated and applied into daily life. By the time one reaches college, the student will have mastered an arsenal of learning tools that can be applied to any and all subjects.

So why pay anything for a product that doesn’t deliver the goods? Sure, college should be free but it goes beyond that.

What is the point of acquiring an expertise and storing tons of information that will be obsolete in a year? Why subject our students to batteries of tests that only measure a student’s ability to memorize useless data and just as quickly forget it? I believe the goal of higher education in this country should be to produce citizens who can think for themselves, understand the difference between rhetoric and fact, create and challenge both themselves and their communities and as a result get this country and its future back on track.

Posted in A Few Dollars More, Macroeconomics