Despite a college degree's enormous cost, almost half of college freshmen (43%) don't graduate even if given six years. If they graduate, a 2011 national study found, 36% of the 1,600 students tested "did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning" in four years. And in the just-published follow-up, which tracked those students since their graduation in 2009, one-quarter were living at home two years after graduation and more than half said their lives lacked direction. Twenty percent were earning less than $30,000 a year, half of those less than $20,000.
Hidebound higher education
College hasn't changed much in centuries. For the most part, there's still a research-oriented Ph.D. sage on the stage lecturing on the liberal arts to a student body too often ill-prepared and uninterested in that. That occurs on a plush campus with a porcine administration, which results in a four-year sticker price at a brand-name private college of more than $200,000. (And those are 2012 figures. They're higher now. Plus, those figures exclude tens of thousands of dollars in books, travel, living expenses and miscellany.)
Time, not for reform, but for reinvention
The meteoric rise in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which see an average enrollment of 43,000 students per course, is an early sign that the public wants change. But MOOCs aren't the answer. Sure, they're free and available to all, but because they're still taught largely by those professor types to often unprepared students, the completion and learning rates are low. MOOCs have a completion rate of only 10%.
Undergraduate courses should not be taught mainly by Ph.D.s. The gap between their and their students' intellectual capabilities and interests is too great. The instructors should be mainly bachelor's-level graduates who themselves had to work hard to get an A. Just as you'd probably learn computer basics better if taught by someone who had to work to acquire mastery rather than by a born computer whiz, the same is true of most undergraduate courses. To be licensed to teach, prospective instructors should have to complete a pedagogy boot camp, a one-weekend to one-semester intensive, which ironically, in most colleges, is required of teaching assistants but not of professors.
Most courses would be taught via online interactive video, which would both save much money—no campus required—and allow a dream team of the world's most transformational instructors to teach. That way, everyone—from the poorest, weakest student to the most brilliant—would have access to the best in interactive instruction. In addition, the online format allows for individualized pacing and exciting simulations impossible to provide in a nation's worth of live classes.
Extracurriculars would occur at local gyms, swimming pools, theaters and athletic fields. Where those were insufficient, facilities on existing campuses would be used, but much of campuses could be sold off.
Importantly, courses would not be attached to any institution. Anyone could submit his or her course for approval to the U.S. Department of Education. Screening would be done only for quality and rigor, not for censorship of content. If approved, the instructor, when posting availability of the course on one of the existing MOOC sites (Coursera, edX or Udemy), could include a badge saying the course is U.S. government–approved for X units of undergraduate credit. When a student has completed the specified number and type of courses to comprise a bachelor's degree, the student would submit proof of completion to the Department of Education, plus the results of a proctored exam that would assess if the student had acquired bachelor's-level skills in reading, writing, critical thinking and mathematical reasoning. If so, they would be granted a U.S. bachelor's degree.
The result would be a far better college education at far lower cost.
A high-quality pathway for academically weak students
Today, we push nearly everyone to college, even those who did poorly in high school, for whom college is unlikely to be the best way to spend their years and money. America needs a major apprenticeship initiative like those in Germany and England: a partnership between schools and employers that creates a high-quality experience for high schoolers whose track record indicates they're more likely to succeed in a practical curriculum than by deriving geometric theorems, deciphering the intricacies of Milton or applying quantum mechanics.
In the meantime, what to do?
Higher education's glacial pace of change, despite years of withering criticism, does not portend major improvement in the offing. So what's the current crop of would-be college attendees to do?
Attending college should not be a fait accompli. If you did poorly in high school or are burned out on academics, you're likely to join the almost half of college freshmen who don't graduate even if given six years. So you might want to consider a noncollege path. For example, while not ideal, America does have a system of apprenticeships. Or try to work at the elbow of a successful, ethical business owner or nonprofit executive. Or consider the military: It offers training in a wide range of career fields. Or take just a gap semester or year to refresh and edify yourself in the real world before starting college. Try some focused traveling—for example, visit elementary schools in different areas and keep a blog. Or start a simple business. Even if it fails, you will have learned much about entrepreneurship, organization, people and life.
A College Report Card
If you are planning to attend college, you'll make a wiser choice if you ask each prospective school's admissions office for the following information, which collectively make up what I call the College Report Card:
- Results of the most recent student-satisfaction survey.
- The most recent report by a visiting accreditation team (for a college to retain accreditation, a team of experts periodically visits for a few days and writes a report listing the identified strengths, weaknesses and recommendations).
- The four-year graduation rate.
- The average four-year student's growth in writing, analytic reasoning and mathematical reasoning (many institutions use a standardized exam like the Collegiate Learning Assessment).
- The percentage of students who graduate with their intended major who are professionally employed or in graduate school within six months of graduation.
It would be a consumer boon if the government mandated that all colleges post the College Report Card on their home page.
We claim that American higher education is the world's best. Like many claims, it deserves closer examination.
Marty Nemko is an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.