The “ol’ college try” … Not good enough anymore?

The questionable college degree ... along with crushing student debt.I’ve blogged before about the increasing concerns many people have regarding the quality of college education in America. Now, several new data points should make every parent of college-age kids – or children who will be ready for college soon – take additional notice.

The first interesting news tidbit is that total student debt, which surpassed the country’s credit card debt for the first time in August 2010, now tops $1 trillion. Compare that to student debt being only around $200 billion as late as 2000.

So we’re talking an increase of ~400% in a little over a decade, which is miles more than the inflation rate over this period. Average debt now stands at almost $23,000 per student, which is a spike of ~8% over the past year alone.

And just what are students getting for all the money they’re spending (or borrowing) for their higher education? If you want to know the ugly truth, check out the recently published book Academically Adrift by sociologists Josipa Roksa and Richard Arum [ISBN-13: 978-0226028569 … also available in a Kindle edition].

Based on the information presented in this book, some grads might wish to haul their colleges up on charges of educational malpractice. Full-time instructional faculty has declined from 78% of college teachers in 1970 to only around 50% today.

Roksa and Arum also report that college faculty members spend, on average, just 11 hours per week on instructional preparation and delivery … the rest of their time is spent on research and a slew of administrative activities.

And how about the “quality” of the education that’s being delivered? If we wish to view that in terms of the amount of time students are spending on their studies, the stats aren’t trending in the right direction. The book claims that whereas the typical college student in the early 1960s devoted an average of 40 hours each week to academic work, today’s students now spend only about 27 hours per week on studies. So in what way is the substantial extra money being extracted from students being used to delier a better quality product?

Here’s the next shocker: ~85% of college graduates are moving back home following graduation. This information comes from a 2011 field survey conducted by Philadelphia-based market research firm Twentysomething, Inc. Compared to the firm’s prior surveys, that represents a spike of nearly 20 percentage points in only five years.

Of course, we all know the economy has been a major problem over the past few years, with jobs hard to come by even for seasoned workers. But to learn that fewer than one in six college students are moving out on their own following college graduation means that precious few grads are coming out of school with the ability to land jobs that can sustain an independent lifestyle — however modest.

With stats as dismal as these, is it any wonder why some people are seeking an alternative paradigm for higher education other than the “four years away from home” model? Enrollment figures at America’s community colleges have been skyrocketing. Online education is also booming, despite lingering concerns about learning standards and accreditation.

Some economists such as Richard Vedder are suggesting making radical reforms in the way that financial aid is provided – and to whom – while other observers are pushing for more recognition of learning credentials that take us beyond a BS or BA degree.

Many of these ideas strike at the very heart of what we’ve always been conditioned to believe about a four-year college education as the gateway to a better life. But with today’s reality being so far removed from the theory (fantasy?) … some out-of-the-box ideas and approaches are exactly what are needed now.

A Surprise? College Students are Ambivalent about e-Books

College textbooks
Surprisingly, college textbooks still reign supreme over their digital counterparts.
The digital revolution is having its first and greatest impact on the younger generations. Whether it’s mobile apps, hyper-texting, online gaming, or keeping up on the news without the benefit of the daily paper, they’re the ones most on the cutting edge.

So it might be somewhat surprising to read the results of a survey of college kids about how they prefer to access their textbook information. I’ve blogged before about the racket that is college textbook publishing – a rip-off if ever there was one. So one would think that college students (and their parents if they foot the bill) would be very keen on any advancements that begin to render expensive textbooks obsolete.

But according to a survey conducted in mid-2010 by OnCampus Research, a division of the National Association of College Stores, only 13% of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous semester.

And of that percentage, ~56% revealed that the prime mover of their e-book purchase was because it was required course material for class, not because they chose an available e-version over a printed version of the textbook.

What’s more, nearly three-fourths of the students in this survey stated that they prefer printed textbooks over digital versions.

And when it comes to what devices people are using to view their e-books, most are accessing the contents on laptop computers rather than newer devices that have hit the streets in recent times:

 Prefer reading e-books on a laptop computer: ~77%
 Prefer reading on a desktop computer: ~30%
 Prefer reading on a smartphone: ~19%
 Prefer reading on a Kindle or similar e-reader device: ~19%
 Prefer reading on an iPad or similar device: ~4%

Laura Cozart, a manager at OnCampus Research, had this to say about the survey results: “The findings of the report are not surprising. Every new innovation takes time before the mainstream population embraces it.”

Reflecting the current situation, of the NACS member stores that offer digital content, e-books comprise only ~3% of course material sales. But NACS is expecting that percentage to rise to 10% or 15% by 2012.

But the impetus behind that anticipated increase is expected to come from faculty members as they get more familiar and comfortable with the interactive possibilities to enhance their classroom instruction — rather than from those oh-so 21st Century students.

It wouldn’t be the first time the “leading edge” meets the “back edge” going around the other side.

College education in America: What the hey, let’s party!

The Five-Year Party, by Craig BrandonJust in time for the upcoming school year, a new book has hit the stores that launches a fierce attack against today’s college education in America. As a father of one recent college grad plus another daughter just beginning her sophomore year, The Five-Year Party: How Colleges Have Given Up on Educating Your Child, by Craig Brandon (ISBN #ISBN-13: 978-1935251804) caught my eye.

Brandon is a former education reporter and college writing instructor. What’s his main beef? That college administrators have taken advantage of government loan largesse and other programs to create a campus environment that’s hardly conducive to the disciplined intellectual labor of learning. The way Brandon sees it, college administrators are more interested in students’ pocketbooks than their intellects.

Brandon trains most of his firepower on liberal arts colleges, many of which he characterizes as “education-free zones” where quaint traditional notions of learning – like attending classes and doing assigned homework – have gone by the boards. He cites statistics that only ~30% of students enrolled in liberal arts institutions graduate in four years … and that fully 60% take six years or more to get their undergraduate degrees.

The book outlines the conditions that contribute to these sorry statistics. Extensive student loan and grant programs mean that few if any students ever pay the “book rate” tuition at a private college or university. This has made it easier for institutions to raise tuition rates far in excess of the inflation rate.

Brandon claims it has also led school administrators to tolerate – even abet – the extra years students spend on campus. After all, it’s more money for them to pay officials their lucrative salaries … not to mention bankrolling the country-club like student centers and new athletic facilities that seem to be on every college’s wish list.

And during that extended time on campus, it’s “party on!” Never mind the lower educational standards … it’s easier and far more lucrative for colleges to give students what they want, rather than what they need, to build meaningful careers afterwards.

And what about the instructors? They may well lament the decline in educational standards. But they’ve found out the hard way that to enforce rigorous educational standards in the classroom invites a flurry of negative reviews on student evaluation forms (that are easily accessible online) – reviews that are often linked to tenure and promotion decisions. It’s easier to go with the flow, provide reasonably entertaining lectures … and give out decent grades to all but the worst performers.

But what does this mean for those students who decide to work hard during their college years and to graduate on time? They may end up with a degree that’s devalued in the eyes of employers.

Moreover, the general decline in the value of a college degree affects even those schools that have tried hardest to maintain the traditional rigors of education that once characterized nearly all liberal arts schools – practices such as requiring students to take extensive coursework in subjects that go beyond their chosen field of study.

Colleges like Davidson in North Carolina, Hillsdale in Michigan and Rhodes in Tennessee may make studying and achieving top grades a huge challenge for their students … but their regional reputations mean that those degrees don’t carry much cachet beyond a 300-mile radius of the school.

Meanwhile, students who attend some of the nation’s better-known ivy league universities or “near ivy” institutions sail on through, cafeteria-style, taking only coursework that is easiest or of greatest interest to them.

Who’s the bigger chump then?

It’s a bit painful to read The Five-Year Party … and hard to finish it without feeling pretty depressed about the state of liberal arts education in America. Besides, does anyone know of a liberal arts school or university that has actually gotten a good handle on controlling its spending? I can’t think of one.

This book makes it easier to recognize the merits of America’s community colleges, which help kids start out their higher education in ways that allow them to explore different areas of interest without the distractions of the “party hearty” campus atmosphere – or breaking the family bank for that matter. Institutions like Chesapeake College in my home area on Maryland’s Eastern Shore are doing yeomen work in this regard, and they deserve better recognition for it.