Two with university experience say college value waning; ASU boss disputes

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 214 views 

College students are paying more and going into more debt for a worse education, legislators were told Monday, while the president of the ASU System defended a college education as an investment that pays dividends for life.

Clint Vogus, an instructor in the College of Business at Arkansas State University, told the Legislative Task Force to Study the Realignment of Higher Education Monday that the value of a college degree has declined in the past 10 years as costs have outstripped inflation and become less affordable, with too much of the increase going to administration. In Arkansas, tuition and fees at public institutions have increased 31.3% during the past five years at public institutions, he said. Nationally, tuition costs and fees increased by 121% from 2000 to 2013, twice as much as health care and far more than the general inflation rate of 35%.That’s led to student debt that exceeds $1.2 trillion, second among consumers only to mortgage debt.

Vogus said that, as a college student, he worked summers to pay for tuition and fees and half his other costs and left college with only $1,000 in student debt.

“You could finance your education with summer earnings and a part-time job,” he said. “That is certainly not true today.”

Created by the Legislature this year, the task force will look at ways of changing higher education in Arkansas and will give its recommendations by December 2016.

Vogus and Dr. Thomas Lindsay, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Higher Education, said that while more students are going to college than in decades past, the quality of the results have fallen. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 41% of students who started college at a four-year school in 2007 did not earn their bachelor’s degree within six years. Most will never finish, and 60% of those who don’t have student debt, Vogus said. Employers are hiring college grads for jobs that once went to high school grads, crowding that population out of job opportunities. Students without college degrees are made to feel like second-class citizens.

Meanwhile, rigor has suffered as more and more students go to college, they said. They said students are studying significantly fewer hours than in the past while grade point averages have increased, making college transcripts less meaningful. Both cited a 2011 study, “Academically Adrift,” which reported on results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment measuring college students’ critical thinking and analytical skills throughout their four years of study. Thirty-six percent of grads did not see an appreciable increase. 

Lindsay, a former university president and deputy chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, said increasing government dollars lead schools to increase costs. For every dollar increase in Pell grants, universities raise tuition by 55 cents. He said federal policies have encouraged the “naive assumption” that most high school graduates should go to college.

Dr. Chuck Welch, president of the Arkansas State University System, defended a college education as “still the greatest investment I’ve ever made in my entire life or ever will make in my entire life.” He said the unemployment rate for college grads is half that of high school students and the incarceration rate is much less, while few college graduates depend on food stamps. College graduates not only will earn more money but also will live longer.

Half of his system’s funding comes from state dollars, which he said have been flat the past five years. That means that raising tuition by 4% only results in a 2% increase in his budget. Welch said the ASU system has added technical training programs in recent years and it recently reduced its number of academic deans from 11 to six. He said student debt averages are skewed by high-debt students while many other students’ debts are manageable. Moreover, he said colleges can’t control whether students take on debt.

Vogus and Lindsay both offered solutions for their criticisms. Vogus said colleges should address costs and drop programs that do not have high demand or lead to good-paying jobs. More focus needs to be placed on technical training as opposed to the traditional degree. State funding needs to be based on cost reduction and outcomes and less on enrollment. He said colleges and universities should develop a degree that can be earned in three years with 90 credit hours, acknowledging that doing so would present a challenge in meeting accreditation standards.

Lindsay pointed to Texas A&M-Commerce, which responded to a challenge by former Gov. Rick Perry to create an affordable degree program. At that school, much of the first two years are completed online and students may advance quickly through courses based on competency rather than seat time. He also called for “contextualized grading,” which would make transcripts more transparent by including the average grade given to a class along with the student’s grades. He said funding should be based on performance, but the emphasis should be learning, not graduation and completion. 

Lindsay said higher education faces a funding crisis. Many schools are already financially struggling, while the size of the 14-17-year-old age group is declining.