Higher education choices in America: A distinction without (much of) a difference?

The cost differential is huge. But what about the education itself?

13According to the College Board, the average annual cost of college, including tuition and books, varies widely depending on the type of institution:

  • Private colleges and universities: ~$31,200
  • Public colleges and universities (out-of-state residents): ~$23,000
  • Public colleges and universities (in-state residents): ~$9,100
  • Community colleges: ~$3,300

In fact, the difference between the highest and lowest cost averages comes out to a factor of ten.

Averages are more difficult to calculate for online college institutions, where the annual cost ranges widely from as low as $5,000 all the way up to $25,000 or so, according to The Guide to Online Schools.

With such a disparity in college education costs, one might think that public perceptions of the value of the degrees granted by them would likewise show differences based on the type of institution.

But a recently completed national opinion study tells us otherwise. A telephone research survey conducted in June 2015 by the Gallup organization queried ~1,500 Americans age 18 or over about their attitudes toward college education.

Among the most interesting findings is the perception of community colleges: Two-thirds of the respondents rate the quality of education that community colleges offer as “excellent” or “good.”

For four-year colleges, the percentage figure for excellent/good quality was only slightly higher: ~70%.

Considering the vast difference in the financial outlay required to attend a four-year school, community college education is looking mighty attractive, indeed.

Tempering this finding are the Gallup survey’s respondents who possessed advanced degrees themselves.  They’re more likely to rate four-year institutions higher than community colleges on quality (a nine percentage point difference).

And of course, community colleges do face challenges such as their track record on lower graduation rates, plus the sometimes challenging process and procedures in successfully transitioning students from two-year to four-year schools.

Still, the perception of near-parity in education quality is striking — and it’s not very different from the findings Gallup has observed since beginning to survey the American public on this topic two years ago.

I don’t doubt that some families will be sharpening their pencils and doing new cost/benefit calculations based on the results of this Gallup survey.

But where a perceived difference in quality continues to persist is in online education. Survey respondents were about half as likely to rate the quality of Internet-based college programs as “excellent” or “good.”

While respondents don’t fault online programs for lacking a broad curriculum, or even for the value provided for the cost of enrolling, online education is seen as lacking strength in three key areas:

  • Reliable testing and grading
  • The quality of instruction
  • The value of the degree to prospective employers

But there’s another way to look at it.  Internet-based higher education is slipping through the door and becoming “mainstream” not just because of the online programs such as those offered by Capella University and the University of Phoenix, but because of the burgeoning online coursework being offered by traditionally brick-and-mortar institutions.

With that growing practice, I predict it’s only a matter of time before the perception of online higher learning will match the higher ratings that are already being given to community colleges, public and private institutions.

Let’s see how things look in another five years.

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.