Many students are tempted to believe that college is no longer a value proposition for them. After all, costs have risen over 1,100 percent since 1978, far outpacing inflation.
Fifty percent of the class of 2011 was unemployed or dramatically underemployed. In another survey, only 16 percent of employers reported that new hires from four-year colleges were "very qualified" for the workforce. Academically, one study showed that only 45 percent of students showed any meaningful cognitive gains after three semesters. Regardless of what one considers the purpose of college to be, it is clear that costly dysfunction is plaguing the system.
With such dismal outcomes across the board, is college still worth it?
For students, a college education can still be the right decision, provided they make informed decisions about their educational path. Attending a well-regarded state school on a scholarship and studying a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) discipline will, on average, produce a better return on investment than taking out a pile of student loans to study sociology at an average, or below average private university. And the student must ultimately graduate for it be worth it: nearly 50 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges never finish.
But massive inefficiencies in the system jeopardize the value of higher ed for all students.
First, colleges need to stop the "academic arms race." Institutions of higher education are businesses: they compete with one another for customers. In the world of higher ed, students who can pay the full price tag are the preferred clients. To attract these types of students, colleges raise their prices to levels that most people cannot afford. Yet because our consumer society usually sees price as synonymous with quality (an untrue maxim in higher ed), applications often increase when schools raise prices.
As a result of increased revenues campuses often are furnished with extravagant amenities like rock climbing walls, hot tubs, and apartment style dorms. Boston University even has a "lazy river" inner tube ride for students. These are nice creature comforts, but ones that are ultimately unessential to the mission of educating students. These too are designed to attract the wealthiest students.
Secondly, the massive amounts of federal student lending must be tightened. About $110 billion in federal student loans were distributed in 2011. Most colleges see the federal lending system as a money spigot which has rarely been tightened. By banking on the ever increasing number of federal dollars flowing into their coffers, they continually raise prices, knowing that Congress has historically done little to curb the money flow.
Third, many colleges employ a superabundance of personnel who manage campus life and ideology but contribute little to student learning. Tiny Williams College, for instance, employs 71 people on its fundraising staff full time. The University of California system has found money to keep dozens of expensive vice-chancellors for diversity programs, while cutting the number of enrollment spots at many institutions amidst a recession. Higher ed also has many research professors who never teach: Only 20 percent of the faculty at UT-Austin teaches 57 percent of the courses. These research professors often exist merely to bring in more dollars in research grants, thus raising the university's "profile."
Colleges and universities ignore such unproductivity their peril. As the President of Stanford has said, a "tsunami" is coming in the form of online education. Innovations like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) can deliver course content to more students at fractional costs. This will challenge every aspect of the higher education business. As certificates of completion from MOOCs and other online resources gain more acceptance among employers desperate for skilled workers, there is a good chance that students could flee from the sclerotic, expensive model that has defined higher ed for decades.
In the meantime, college can still be worth it for many students, provided that they have an appetite for academic rigor and an understanding of which schools and majors provide a good return on investment.
—William J. Bennett is the author of "Is College Worth It: A Former United States Secretary of Education and a Liberal Arts Graduate Expose the Broken Promise of Higher Education." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.
—David Wilezol is co-author of "Is College Worth It" and the associate producer for Bill Bennett's "Morning in America." He is also a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute and currently a graduate student in Greek and Latin at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.