Seeming rather than being

Higher ed’s deficiencies are leaving students empty-handed and the nation shortchanged.

Part 2 of 2 | High debt, low learning

I believe in being smart, and I believe in education. I love learning, and when I’ve pursued formal education, at either the high-school or college level, I’ve put all I can into it.

At South Mecklenburg High School I graduated in the top 10% of my class, with a 4.339 GPA. I was also voted “most intelligent” by my fellow students, and the faculty selected me as one of a couple dozen “outstanding seniors”.

In college I had a GPA of 3.956—.044 of a point from a perfect 4.0 because of three A minuses (all the rest of my grades were A or its equivalent). When Susan first learned that, she remarked, “No wonder you hated college.”

Education is not just essential to the advancement of individuals; it’s vital for the advancement of nations. One of the reasons the United States became a superpower in the 20th century is because it prioritized providing a high level of education to a vast swath of its populace.

But somewhere along the way we lost sight of that. Caught up in politics, economics, and personal circumstance, gaining higher education is a much more complex proposition than it used to be—and than it needs to be. And even if, as in my case, because of your academic accomplishments—or, as is increasingly the case, because of your family’s wealth—you can access higher education, my experience in college taught me that what you gain is an inferior product that is more likely to guarantee heavy debt than increased job opportunities or earning power.

The college debt crisis

And it’s there that I’ll begin, because there is a general consensus that student debt is a growing issue that is beginning to undermine the entire higher-education model in the United States.

First, a few numbers.

• A full 70% of the class of 2013—more than two-thirds of college graduates this year—graduated with student debt. This includes traditional college loans as well as debt to families and credit-card debt.1
• The average debt load for a member of the class of 2013 with debt is $35,200.2
• More than one-third of recent graduates, 36.7%, are working in jobs that don’t require a degree—according to the study, they are “mal-employed”. CNN Money notes, “The mal-employed earn up to 40% less per week than their peers…. That could make it harder for them to pay off their student loans, move into their own apartments and even get married.”3
• Another 8% of recent grads have part-time jobs rather than full-time jobs—meaning they are working and earning less, with fewer benefits, often with no health coverage, retirement plans, and other perks of being employed full time.4
• All told, over one-half of recent college graduates, 53.6%, are unemployed or underemployed, and “Median wages for those with bachelor’s degrees are down from 2000.” The situation is worst in the Mountain West, where the University of Utah is located, where up to 60%—roughly 3 in 5—of recent grads are un- or underemployed. This despite assurances from universities and others alike that a college education would open the door to career opportunities and higher incomes.5

In short, we are saddling an entire generation with an enormous amount of personal debt, before they even enter the workforce and start their careers. Cumulative student debt in the United States now totals more than $1 trillion.6 That’s more than either auto loans or credit-card debt.7

When they enter the workforce, they face the bleakest prospects in generations. Today’s college graduates are more likely to remain unemployed for an extended period of time, and those who do eventually find employment are more likely to work in positions that don’t take advantage of their education and/or pay them less than they would have earned a generation ago.

Add to that the fact that this generation will have to pay off the highest level of national debt in American history in real money terms: as of this writing the national debt exceeds $17 trillion.8 Total liabilities, including entitlement programs, total more than $126 trillion—which this generation will have to figure out how to fund. This out of an economy that totals just under $17 trillion and where we are being left behind.9

A significant portion of this debt stems from misguided wars in Afghanistan and, especially, Iraq. Where, by the way, our generation carried out most of the ground combat and, therefore, suffered the lion’s share of the casualties. And which we are now expected to pay for since the government financed the wars through debt. It’s on our backs.

Ours is also the generation on which the success of President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation, health-insurance reform, depends. The entire point of the individual mandate—the requirement that individuals buy health insurance or face a tax penalty—was to get our generation, young and therefore mostly healthy, into the system to help pay for the costly care of older, sicklier generations. This, too, is on our backs.

Ours is a generation disabled by debt, with untold consequences for individuals and families, and enormous repercussions for our nation and our world. Yet this is a generation where, as Carl Van Horn, founding director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, put it, “Employers are taking college grads over high-school grads, but paying them high-school grad wages.”10

We are shortchanging that entire generation with an inferior college education

According to the College Board, “[a]mong full-time undergraduates at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions, the median published tuition and fee price in 2013–14 is $11,093.”11 This does not include room and board or other costs related to attending college, such as transportation, books and supplies, and other expenses—essential extras, all of which can easily double that sticker price. For many students, it is not a stretch to say four years of higher education can cost over $100,000.

So what are students getting for their cool hundred grand?

As it turns out, not much.

A book released in 2011, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, conveyed some startling findings from a study of 2,300 undergraduates at 24 colleges and universities, a representative cross-section of American higher education. (An Associated Press article on the book notes, “The schools took part on the condition that their institutions not be identified.”)

• A full 45% of college students “show no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their” second year of college.
• That number improves to 36% after four years. But that still means that over one-third of students, upon leaving college, have no measurable gains in the skills that many say are the essential reason colleges exist in the first place.
• The social environment of campus—again, a core reason higher education as we know it today is organized how it is organized—generally makes no difference in student performance: students who study with others show lower gains in the key measures than students who study alone. Some social aspects of college even have a detrimental effect: the study found that “students who spent more time in the Greek system had decreased rates of learning.” Then again, I guess it’s sort of obvious that you’re not learning much when you’re spending all your time at the frat house.
• A year out of college, these results begin to show their real impact: one-third of college graduates move back home and 10% remain unemployed (that’s to say nothing of the 37% who are mal-employed and the untold others who are underemployed).12

So, let’s say colleges succeed with 64% of their students, helping them improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing by the time they graduate. And let’s translate that to a grade: a D according to the grading scale at most American universities. In short, the nation’s system of higher education is doing no better than a D—and a low D at that—at fulfilling their core purpose of educating the nation’s youth and positioning our nation to be viable and competitive in the global economy of the 21st century.

My personal experience in college corroborates these findings. My first semester at the University of Utah I had a course where the teacher allowed one page of notes to be brought into the exam. The notes were to consist of selections from the book we were then reading, which we could then quote in our essay. I remember one particular exam on a book I hadn’t read. I woke up the morning of the exam, flipped through the book and found a page that sounded like it could be useful in the exam, and typed it up and printed it out. I aced the exam. My blue book was filled with praise from the professor on the strength of my essay. All on a book I never even read.

A year later I had another course, a gen ed course on American history. I studied for those exams in much the same way: cracked open the textbook for 30 minutes the morning of the exam, then aced every test.

While I like to think that I’m smart and a decent student, I’m not that amazing. Rather, the coursework just wasn’t so rigorous that it required more effort. And I spent over $1,000 for each of those classes13 where my greatest takeaway was the deficiency of America’s system of higher education. Had I gone to the library and borrowed a book—for free—and read it, I likely would have learned more.

The researchers behind the book I mention above, Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, blame these results in part on “a culture at colleges and universities that values research over good teaching.”14 My personal experience at the U substantiates this as well. Except it wasn’t just research valued over good teaching—it was everything but good teaching that was valued more highly: the research; the medical center; the business er, research park; and especially athletics, most of all the football team of Urban Meyer and Alex Smith that went undefeated my sophomore year. We mere students were third-class citizens at our own university, bottom-dwelling scum suckers because we were a drain on—rather than contributing to—the university’s revenue. Or so it felt.

We are recreating a caste system

High debt, low learning: the repercussions are great for individuals. But what of the consequences for our nation and our world of the failure of our system of higher education to perform its most basic functions? These effects can be summarized by one word: divide.

Wealth divide. The divide between the richest Americans and everyone else is the biggest it has been in generations and is only getting bigger. And the deficiencies in our system of higher education are contributing to this growing wealth gap. The bottom 25% of Americans, those with net worths less than $8,500, not only hold a greater proportion of the nation’s cumulative student debt than the wealthiest 25%—those with net worths of $311,000 or more—they hold more student debt than the top 75% of Americans combined.15 A system of higher education that burdens the most those who need its help most urgently will fail to live up to the very ideals it purports to instill in its students. The growing burden of debt, combined with higher ed’s failure to provide a sound education to a significant portion of its students, threatens to contribute more to economic inequality in our nation far more than education will solve it.

Generation divide. Millennials, those born beginning around 1980, give or take a few years (a generation that probably includes Dustin but likely excludes Susan)—in other words, those who are currently in college, or who graduated from college within about the past decade, or who will begin college in the coming decade—are the first generation in American history that expects to be worse off than their parents. Hobbled by the greatest student debt burden in history, the greatest national debt in history, bleak economic prospects, and mediocre college educations, it’s easy to see why. The failures in our system of higher education threaten to exacerbate the generation gap, and it could well continue to grow for future generations.

Racial divide. And for universities’ idealism—the equality and opportunity rhetoric of their professors, the political and social activism of their students—there is one startling fact that stands in stark relief. That same study that found that 36% of students graduate college without improving important skills such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing also found that the gap between white and black students widens during the four years of college.16 Add to that the unraveling of affirmative action programs17 and persistent achievement gaps between black and white students at other levels of education, the failures of our higher-education system threaten to undo a century and a half of progress on the issue of race in this country.

The stakes couldn’t be higher.


But what of this fact, which the University of Utah’s Office of Admissions notes on its website about tuition: “the average salary for a college graduate is almost $20,000 per year higher than the salary of a high school graduate (that equates to $900,000 over a career).”18

More than saying something about the value of a college education, I believe that fact says something about our value system as a society. The facts remain that more than a third of college students gain little to nothing from their (expensive) experience, and that for an increasing number of college students employment prospects are negligibly higher for them than for those with just a high-school diploma—indeed, for an increasing number of them, they end up working behind the same Starbucks counter, returning home at night to the couch in their parents’ living room. Salaries and wages remain depressed, and the costs of college education have increased at a rate far exceeding that of inflation or income growth. There are likely other, less expensive ways to help young people gain skills in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing as well as knowledge in a particular subject area and, while doing so, contribute more significantly to society and the economy. But academic discussion on these alternatives—tied to the politics and revenues of the nation’s colleges and universities—is scant to nonexistent.

But in the United States, we still have this idea, this belief, that all people would benefit from going to college. From the president to the PTA, we want to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to postsecondary education to every student, regardless of resources, academic achievement, personality, and individual needs and interests. And while I can appreciate efforts to democratize higher education, they are clearly falling short, leaving students empty-handed and society shortchanged. As Rebecca Schuman, an adjunct professor at the Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, wrote in Slate, “The indecorous truth is that …, without a radical overhaul in either state funding or university management, college in the United States will continue to cost vastly more than students can afford. But we will continue to tell them that in order to find employment, they have no choice but to go—and yet when (or if) they graduate, there will still be few jobs for them.”19

And this idea that people should have gone to college persists as individuals seek employment. Virtually any job description will list as a requirement a “college degree”. More often than not, it doesn’t matter what the degree is in: it doesn’t have to be in a course of study at all related to the job, it just has to have been earned. HR professionals may tell you that a person’s possession of a college degree is a sure sign of their level of intelligence and their ability to stick to and follow through with a project or goal. Yet, clearly, with alarming frequency, a college degree is no sure sign of any of those things. The only guaranteed thing a college degree tells you is that someone spent tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars for a piece of paper (albeit a rather fancy one). College degrees have become status symbols and little more.

What does our society really value? The appearance of being smart, talented, and accomplished, rather than the actual fact. Its motto is videri quam esse, seeming rather than being. Which, come to think of it, would appear an apt description of the role that institutions of higher education play in the lives of their students and our society.

  1. Fidelity Investments, “Student Debt Levels—Now Averaging More Than $35,000—Surprise To Half Of 2013 College Grads,” 16 May 2013 
  2. Fidelity Investments 
  3. Luhby, Tami, “Recent college grads face 36% ‘mal-employment’ rate,” CNN Money, 25 June 2013 
  4. Luhby, Tami/CNN Money 
  5. Associated Press (AP), “Half of recent college grads underemployed or jobless, analysis says,” 23 April 2012 
  6. Chopra, Rohit, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, “Student Debt Swells, Federal Loans Now Top a Trillion,” 17 July 2013 
  7. Severns, Maggie, “The Student Loan Debt Crisis in 9 Charts,” Mother Jones, 5 June 2013 
  8. The highest level of national debt as a percentage of the GDP was in the years after World War II—a level we are once again rapidly approaching. 
  10. Luhby, Tami/CNN Money 
  11. College Board, Trends in College Pricing 2013, p. 3 [PDF, 3.6 MB
  12. Gorski, Eric, “Report: College students not learning much,” Associated Press (AP), 18 January 2011 
  13. I did have a scholarship, so my personal cost was probably less. But nonresident, lower-division undergraduate tuition for 12 credit hours at the University of Utah was $4,465.76, plus $264.70 in fees, for the 2003–04 academic year, my first at the U. By contrast, nonresident, lower-division undergraduate tuition for 12 credit hours at the U for the 2013–14 academic year is $9,508.20, plus $434.10 in fees, an increase of 110% in just 10 years. Meaning those same worthless courses would cost nearly $2,500 today. 
  14. It is fair to note that the researches also place blame on “students who don’t study much and seek easy courses.” 
  15. Severns, Maggie/Mother Jones 
  16. Gorski, Eric/AP 
  17. I make this statement without any judgment on the actual value or merits of affirmative action. 
  18.  University of Utah Office of Admissions 
  19. Schuman, Rebecca, “Buyer Beware the Bargain-Basement B.A.,” Slate, 4 November 2013 

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