Millions of first-year college students and their families now paying for the most expensive postsecondary education in U.S. history face a land mine: just 56 percent of those who enroll in a four-year college earn a bachelor’s degree. Those new undergraduates are now reaching the end of the first semester, a critical crossroads between finishing and dropping out.
Some students drop out because of trouble paying the cost — the average college debt upon graduation is a whopping $24,000. Others struggle to hold down a job while also attending college — tuition, room and board at many private universities tops $50,000 a year, and some state schools charges $10,000 a year just for tuition. But more than half of first-year students are simply underprepared for college-level work, said Jeff King, director of the Koehler Center for Teaching Excellence at Texas Christian University, which is developing a tool to identify students who are most at risk of dropping out. “There’s increasing pressure … to prove that after these thousands of dollars that parents are paying for a credential, the students are learning,” King said.
Education policymakers for decades have focused on opening the doors to higher education to more students, without much thought about whether those students are prepared and what happens if they’re not. Now, they’re starting to take action. Over the past decade, the U.S. has fallen from leader to 12th place in the ratio of young people with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree, well behind Russia, Canada, Korea and Japan.
McKinsey & Co. report concluded.
In today’s knowledge-based economy, many employers are struggling to find qualified applicants to fill vacant jobs – a labor shortage that a Georgetown University report projects will grow to 3 million workers by 2018. The number of private-sector job openings this year through August outpaced the number of hires by a ratio of about five-to-one.
Even those students who graduate with a four-year degree may find themselves unqualified to fill good jobs, especially those who majored in the humanities. Craig Brandon, Keane, N.H.-based author of The Five-Year Party, said that when he was a college professor, he received reference requests from former students for jobs as clerks or waitresses. “They had $30,000 in student loans they were paying off in tips from a restaurant,” Brandon said.
National leaders from President Obama to Bill and Melinda Gates are now turning the spotlight on the need to better support incoming students and dramatically raise graduation rates, backed by billions of dollars in government and philanthropic funding. For the Obama administration, every tactic for raising graduation rates is an option, from competitive grants to withholding accreditation or federal funding, said Martha Kanter, under secretary of education for postsecondary education. “Everything’s on the table,” Kanter said in an interview with The Fiscal Times. “We just have too much failure. Too many students have fallen out.”
Lecture courses of 400 to 500 students are taught
by bored adjunct professors or graduate students.
Those seeking to overhaul higher education want a renewed focus on learning, and an end to institutions collecting tuition dollars and churning out dropouts (or even graduates) without the basic skills needed to land a job in today’s economy. Colleges have been accused of “education malpractice,” by political scientist Andrew Hacker, co-author of Higher Education? Lecture courses of 400 to 500 students are taught by bored adjunct professors or graduate students, he said. “The first two years, particularly, are just dreadful in terms of teaching.”