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Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 2/16/2014 - Updated: 8 months ago

COMMENTARY

Let’s rethink costs, content of higher ed

BY KEITH C. BURRIS
COLUMNIST FOR THE BLADE

A few months ago I attended a seminar on secondary education in which the speaker said something, parenthetically, that stuck with me: He said we endlessly analyze and critique primary and secondary education in America, but we give higher education a pass. We pay a great deal more for it, he said, and we get, all things considered, a great deal less.

I thought to myself: Bingo.

My wife and I are finishing up paying for the last of three children in college.

I speak not with a built-in bias against our colleges and universities, but with a love for them. I was a college professor many years ago and have taught on a part-time basis off and on in the years hence. I loved all those experiences as well as my own student years.

But did you know there are 115,000 janitors in this country with bachelor’s degrees? The kicker is that most of those people probably have college debt. It’s nuts.

William Bennett, former secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, has co-authored a new book: Is College Worth It? His answer: Only if you have a reason for going and a way to contain your college debt.

Recent polls show that most Americans agree. We are figuring out that $100,000 for a degree in English literature or comparative religion is no bargain.

Mr. Bennett says we are in “an academic arms race” — a race to the top in terms of costs and to the bottom in terms of knowledge.

Why is college so expensive today?

Mr. Bennett says there are two factors: People will pay anything to send their kids to college, and colleges will extract as much money as they can if no one objects.

What is the return on investment? Only 16 percent of managers and employers say the people they hire out of college are ready for the work force.

And yet, since 1985, the price of higher education has increased 528 percent.

The United States has the highest per-pupil tuition rates in the world and, arguably, the least well-educated graduates.

Moreover, in many colleges and universities, as much as one-third of the school’s budget is spent on administration, including presidents paid more than the president of the United States. He is paid $400,000 a year. The presidents of Northeastern University, Marist College, and the Florida Institute of Technology are paid, respectively, $3.1 million, $2.6 million, and $1.8 million a year. The new president of Ohio State University will make a cool $1 million a year. I’m pretty sure the POTUS has a tougher job.

What can we do?

I contacted two old friends who have been teaching at the university level, one for 30 years and the other for nearly 40 years. The upshot: One friend agrees with President Obama: As a nation we should invest in community colleges.

Mr. Bennett claims that today, a graduate of a two-year college, on average, makes more money than a graduate of a four-year college. (Another reason to bring back Macomber High School.) The other friend recommends federal wage and price controls on higher education. This might force colleges and universities to make choices about what they spend money on.

I spoke with former University of Toledo President Dan Johnson last week. The man is a practical visionary and, in the words of one of his friends, “a servant-leader.” He told me that this issue of college costs is the main thing he wants to work on now, and that he has begun, with others, to draft a white paper on the subject.

He says he hopes there is a way to reform the college cost structure in Ohio (let’s start here) and that this must have two parts. The first must be that colleges and universities examine themselves — what are we doing that we should not be doing? Some questions I would suggest: Do dorms need flat-screen TVs? Do student gyms and health centers need to be state-of-the art? How much should we pay coaches? Is being a college or university president a multimillion dollar a year job?

Next, Mr. Johnson says we must ask what the public share of public higher education should be. One additional dedicated penny on the state sales tax would return Ohio public higher education to what it was when I went to college in this state more than 30 years ago: not quite free but very, very inexpensive.

Now maybe a new tax is not politically palatable. Or maybe, at one penny, it might be. But consider that a university education is nominal for veterans and minimal for members of the National Guard, so making tuition affordable in return for public service can be done.

Mr. Johnson’s two questions have to do with the product and sharing costs, between students and society. They are intertwined but different questions.

How to reduce the cost of higher education is a tough problem but perhaps not nearly as difficult as what constitutes higher education today. We are not preparing our young people well for work or life.

Too many learn college in college, but not skills. And yet, as my retired friend Jim sagely remarked to me one day, what makes people get out of bed in the morning, and feel good about themselves is the ability to accomplish something — to make, create, and complete.

Are we preparing our young to to do any of those things in college?

We need to take a hard look at the costs of higher education today and an even harder look at its content.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact him at: kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.



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