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The student loan debt crisis is overblown. The real problem is college completion rates.

Four myths about the higher education crisis — and four promising reforms.

student debt protest
The focus on student debt has overshadowed more important issues, say Bowen and McPherson

Commentators, politicians, and journalists have thrown themselves — and, in turn, the public — into a state of persistent panic about the future of higher education with scary talk about spiraling student-loan debt, worthless degrees, and reckless spending by colleges.

But the doomsaying is overblown. American higher education is by no means a disaster area, and it is unlikely to become one in the foreseeable future. Yes, the system does have serious faults and faces significant challenges — but the biggest challenges tend not to be the ones generating the most excitement. Panic is rarely a desirable state of mind either for identifying or solving problems. Clearing away the underbrush of alarmist claims can help us focus more effectively on higher education’s actual problems while also recognizing its significant strengths.

Here are four myths that often recur in commentary about American higher education (followed by four significant problems that suffer from neglect in the current panic-stricken discussion):

1) Most college graduates are not being crushed by a mountain of debt

Forty percent of public-college students owe nothing when they graduate, and the vast majority of people with six-figure borrowing for higher education have gone to graduate or professional school — often financing medical, dental, or other degrees that are likely to lead to very good incomes. Among the 60 percent of public-college bachelor’s recipients in 2013-14 who did borrow, the average amount was $25,500.

Powerful new data from the US Treasury department makes clear that the people who are most likely to get in trouble with debt are those who dropped out of college before they earned a credential, and who therefore have weak job prospects. Often they have borrowed relatively little money but have few resources and no doubt little enthusiasm for repaying what they owe. Dropouts are almost three times as likely to default on their loans as graduates are. It is this subgroup’s debt that ought to be driving the conversation, not the debt of the "average" college student.

2) Free tuition is no solution to the most serious problems we face

With apologies to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton: Tuition-free college is way less help than some people need and way more than others require. Free tuition won’t let a single mom quit her job and go to college full time (the path that would afford her the best odds of finishing), nor will it permit the young Native American from an impoverished family to go away to State U instead of staying home to earn money to help out at home.

Disadvantaged students need substantial help with living expenses as well as with covering their tuition. Meanwhile — an oft-repeated point still worth stressing— there is surely no reason why Donald Trump’s children, or Chelsea Clinton’s, ought to go to college for free. But there is also no reason why a two-earner, one-child family generating a combined income of $110,000 a year (well above the national average) should not be expected to contribute at least a couple of thousand dollars a year to their child’s education. We are all in this together.

If we want our least advantaged people to have a decent shot at success, we all need some restraint in asserting our privileges. Moreover, there is no reason why students themselves, who stand to reap significant benefits from investing in education — the average bachelor’s graduate aged 25 to 29 makes about $20,000 more per year than the average high school graduate of the same age, and the gap continues to grow with age — should not repay a portion of the cost through loans once they enter the workforce.

3) College students are not ending up working as baristas

College degrees, and bachelor’s degrees especially, pay off big-time. It is certainly a mistake to think that the point of life, or of college, is to make as much money as possible, but there is nothing foolish about expecting that an investment of substantial time and money in one’s future will yield the prospect of a better material life.

The financial crash generated lots of stories about recent college graduates being unemployed or taking so-called non-college jobs. In fact, though, for decades the unemployment rate for people with only a high school degree has consistently been about twice as high as that for those with bachelor’s degrees. In 2015, 5.4 percent of high school grads aged 25 and over were unemployed, compared to 2.8 percent for BA holders. The figure for those with advanced degrees was even lower. What’s more, recent years have seen the highest ratio of BA-to-high-school earnings in history. The worst outcomes occur for those who have only a high school diploma or less.

Of course, some high school grads will out-earn many college grads, and some college grads will wind up with very disappointing careers. But as Damon Runyan once allegedly said, "The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong, but that is how the smart money bets." On balance, getting a BA pays off.

4) It’s not "academic bloat" that has been pushing public-college tuition up

It’s the failure of state government funding to keep up with enrollment growth. In most of public higher education, the number of non-faculty staff has actually fallen modestly in recent decades, while the faculty-to-student ratio has actually grown a bit.

College leaders are nobody’s idea of efficiency experts, but public colleges and universities have in fact done some belt tightening. And no wonder, when we see that state appropriations to higher education per student fell in real terms by 14 percent from 2005 to 2015. What belt tightening there has been has not been nearly adequate to balance college budgets in the face of this tremendous revenue decline. Colleges have sought to make up the difference through raising prices.

Unfortunately, state governments don’t turn out to be a very satisfying villain for those looking for a scapegoat for higher tuition. It’s not that states have been aiming to punish universities — at least outside Wisconsin — but rather that growing enrollment demand has pushed up against other heavy pressures on state finances, including rising Medicaid costs, growing expenditures for K-12 education, and a popular climate that is very resistant to tax increases. These pressures are unlikely to reverse themselves in any near future. The search for someone more satisfying to blame – like rapacious deans – may help explain why a writer like the law professor Paul Campos would throw together a shockingly incoherent set of data in the New York Times — a number salad — to make a totally unconvincing case for administrative bloat. Why the Times elected to publish it is harder to account for.

Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, behind podiums, at a presidential debate
Bernie Sanders introduced the idea of free tuition to the Democratic race. Hillary Clinton followed his lead.

Four genuine challenges — with proposals for reform

Rather than focusing on the overhyped problems, we should:

1) Improve the dismal rate at which students complete the postsecondary programs they start

Uncompleted college programs waste students’ time and money, and often lead to little or no benefit for them or for society. The census reports that for the population aged 25 to 34, a bachelor’s level graduate has mean annual earnings about $20,000 higher than does a high school graduate. But a student who has some college but no degree only out-earns the high school graduate by $2,000. College access — helping more people get into a decent college in the first place — is by no means a solved problem in this nation. But improving success — reducing the extent to which people who start a degree or certificate program leave with nothing — is at this point a more serious problem than initial access.

America is still the most educated society in the world, but recent generations are not keeping up that record as other countries expand entry rates while keeping completion rates higher than ours. Most disturbingly, graduation rates are much lower for students from disadvantaged economic, racial and ethnic backgrounds than for others, and these are the groups whose members are most dependent on education for social advancement. No doubt this stems partly from deficient educational opportunities at earlier levels of schooling, but there is growing evidence that systematic, intensive, and data-aware reforms in postsecondary institutions can measurably improve results.

A serious difficulty is that students from disadvantaged backgrounds generally have significantly less money spent on their education than their better prepared and better financed peers.

Although a perfect apples-to-apples comparison is hard to achieve, spending per student is roughly twice as high at public research universities as at community colleges — which disproportionately serve the disadvantaged. Even bachelors’ and masters’ institutions spend about 50 percent more on every student than community colleges do. And almost all the proven programs that boost completion rates for students at broad access colleges — like the celebrated Accelerated Study in Associate Programs at CUNY — cost non-trivial amounts of money. Directing money to the schools and programs that help poor students is incomparably more important than reducing the debt load of upper-middle-class graduates of good colleges.

2) Cut some low-ranking PhD programs, and trim others

It’s undeniable that higher education has to become cheaper and more effective. The best way to attract funds for support of public investments in college is to demonstrate that colleges make good use of the money they get. So higher education will have to bite some bullets by challenging long-honored practices that have become pretty clearly dysfunctional.

One good example of a dysfunctional practice is the radical disconnect between the number of new PhDs produced annually in various fields and the academic jobs available. Even in the face of an obvious oversupply nationally of academic PhDs in a variety of fields — not just a few humanities subjects — the internal machinery of recruiting and training graduate students, deploying them as teaching assistants, and pushing them off into an unfriendly world grinds on apace. This is a costly apparatus that in many cases serves better the interests of prestige-seeking deans and faculty than of students or the nation.

3) Professionalize adjuncts, creating a strong cadre of college-level faculty whose main responsibility is good teaching

About 70 percent of all faculty in the US are "contingent or "non-tenure track" faculty, a share that has grown relentlessly in recent decades. Far too many of these contingent faculty have miserable pay and working conditions, and very little job security. No matter how well-motivated these faculty are, their circumstances interfere with them doing their best work. Expanding the tenured ranks dramatically is not a realistic solution to this problem, but investing in a more stable career structure for contingent faculty would pay real dividends for colleges and universities — not least in providing a concrete demonstration that these outfits really care about teaching. Such reform would include suitable training, reasonable job security, and recognition of excellent work.

4) Figure out how to close or merge small, inefficient colleges

The nation simply has too many private liberal arts colleges that are individually too small to function well. Extremely small colleges, with fewer than, say, 800 students, have serious trouble maintaining and staffing a full curriculum and have few students over whom to spread the cost of paying a president, operating a swimming pool, and so on. These enrollment-hungry colleges often spend too much of their limited resources trying to "steal" applicants from one another with fancy facilities or merit aid.

The small college experience is valuable for some students, and there is every reason to maintain and even increase the number of students who have that experience. It is much harder to rationalize having the students spread over so many campuses that are individually too small. Running three 400-student campuses is far more expensive, and probably educationally inferior, to running a single 1,200 student campus. A significant amount of consolidation is called for. Shuttering a college is neither easy nor costless, and in some cases the impacts on communities, existing faculty, and the feelings of alumni are real and painful. (Which is why such decisions get reversed.)

Three steps would help. First, establish a set of regional clearinghouses that could help broker mergers among colleges and assist in arranging placements for faculty and staff who lose their jobs when a campus shuts down. Second, have each clearinghouse work with colleges in its region to establish the equivalent of a "base closing commission" to advocate for consolidation plans. Finally, get states with many small colleges to establish "safe harbor" provisions for trustees that provide a framework that will protect them from last-minute attempts to undo their plans.

Besides tackling big specific issues like these, colleges have to set upon the patient, incremental work of learning how to do their work more carefully and more reliably. This requires hard thinking and reliable evidence about how to teach better and how to help students make better choices about their plans based on systematic feedback.

But to undertake that work with patience and intelligence, we need to first turn off — or tune out — all the false alarms.

William G. Bowen is president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. Michael S. McPherson is president of the Spencer Foundation and the former president of Macalester College. They are the authors of Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education.

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