September 13th, 2011
04:36 PM ET

America's college education problem

Editor's Note: Dr. James M. Lindsay is a Senior Vice President at the Council on Foreign Relations and co-author of America Unbound: The Bush Revolution in Foreign Policy. Visit his blog here and follow him on Twitter.

By James M.

Today’s Washington Post has two troubling stories that touch on the future of American competitiveness. One story covers a new Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report showing that the United States is falling in the global ranking of young adults who finish college. The other story is that defaults on federal student loans have jumped.

According to the OECD report, the United States has fallen from twelfth to sixteenth since 1995 in the percentage of adults age 25 to 34 holding college degrees. This happened despite the fact that successive presidents, most recently President Obama, have vowed to put the United States back on top of the world’s higher education rankings.

As the Post story points out, the OECD’s ranking are somewhat misleading. American higher education is built around the four-year bachelor’s degree. Many other countries stress shorter one- or two-year professional degrees. But that raises another important question, is America’s traditional four-year approach the right one? Are most students well served by this model? As much as I would like to give a definitive yes - I have taught at two major research universities - I’m not so sure.

One reason is that the cost of a college education in the United States has skyrocketed. I hadn’t followed college costs closely until my kids became teenagers. Now my oldest child attends the University of Virginia, and all I can say is, wow! UVA estimates that the total cost for an in-state undergraduate to walk the grounds in Charlottesville this year is $24,104. And that’s a pretty good deal. My alma mater, the University of Michigan, puts the total bill this year for out-of-state undergraduates at $50,352Bates College, ranked in 2010 as the most expensive private four-year institution, charges $55,300.

As someone who will be sending three more kids to college over the next four years, all I can say is, ouch! And yes, I understand that grants and financial aid mean that many students pay less than the full advertised price. And I know you can cut college costs by attending a community college for your first two years, buying used books, and so forth. But still, ouch!

Which brings us to the Post’s second story - defaults on students loans are up. Many students finance college by taking out loans. Borrowing money to pay for college—what economists call investing in human capital - can be a smart idea. College graduates earn substantially higher salaries and have significantly lower unemployment rates than people with just high-school degrees. (Dropouts fare even worse.)

But even a good idea can be a bad one if pushed too far. Student loan debt is growing quickly. In 2010 for the first time, the total amount of student loan debt surpassed the total amount of credit card debt. The average college student now graduates with more than $24,000 in loans, up from an average of $13,172 in the mid-1990s. These figures don’t include what parents borrow, either directly or through vehicles such as home equity loans, for their children to go to college. Students graduating now may become the first generation of parents to still be paying off their college loans when their kids go off to college.

That’s not a good trend. It’s why the United States is likely fall further down the ranking of adults age 25 to 34 with a college degree unless it revises its education model, changes the way its finances higher education, and brings costs under control. (UVA boasted in the press release announcing its 8.9 percent increase in in-state tuition in 2011-2012 that this was the tenth year in a row that it had held tuition increases under 10 percent; that’s a pretty generous standard to be measured against, especially when the past decade witnessed historically low inflation, including an inflation rate of just 1.5 percent in 2010.) A society in which fewer Americans attend and complete college, whether of the one-year, two-year, or four-year variety, cannot be good for the ability of Americans to prosper in a globalizing world, or for the future of American power.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of James M. Lindsay.

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Topics: Education • United States

soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. fernace

    The reason America can never compete with many European nations in the field of education is because of differences in governance! In many socialist-democratic nations, taxes by citizens have already been paid toward extended education! It's there if you want it, at any time during your lifetime! In this nation, taxes by citizens going toward SS or MediCare, are up for grabs to put to use for their pet projects or their pockets! Why are we so deeply in debt, does any 1 care figure out that conundrum?? Certainly not enough goes toward education, which is why we lag behind developing nations! That is a travesty, in the richest country of the world! This is the perfect time to find out how & why our $$ is spent!!

    September 13, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • j. von hettlingen

      Not all countries in Europe are "socialist-democratic nations", yet many of them provide high standard of education.
      It seems that one finds the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. Many Europeans want to pay for the high tuition fees and study in the U.S. Except for the Northern countries, many universities in Central Europe are overcrowded.

      September 14, 2011 at 6:11 am |

      The reasons America lacks behindbis that EVERYONE goes to college. Your best people working at Walmat, and MacDonalds went to college....can't read nor do simple math, but went to college. To get people back to work you need good a solid Tchnical education and trades education. THIS WILL HELP PRODUCE THOSE VALUE ADDED JOBS. Not an arts degree......

      September 14, 2011 at 10:20 pm |
      • Ron

        It is interesting that you associate an ability to read/write with technical knowledge rather than "arts" knowledge. For instance, I have found that engineers tend to be borderline illiterate for the most part, while English majors are the core of a minority of people who understand basic grammatical principles such as parallelism. I wince whenever I read the comments on tech blogs.

        October 12, 2011 at 10:49 am |
    • LV

      You forgot the part about having to TEST IN to the best universities. They never sacrificed merit as the qualifier, as we did to be 'diverse' over the past 20 years. They also do not allow foreign students to get in without huge testing barriers, unlike the USA where, if you have the cash and a pulse, and your are not from America, whoa, you are IN! Political Correctness wrecked our system.

      September 15, 2011 at 12:09 pm |
      • Whack a Doodle

        Sounds like you did not get into your "safety" school.....

        October 5, 2011 at 11:30 am |
    • Robert Bates

      Here's a thought – why do we not change our Bachelor of Arts degrees from four years to three years like they are in most European Countires? Europeans appear to be equally well-educated and eliminating one year from college means one year less of possibe debt for our undergraduate students.

      October 17, 2011 at 5:06 pm |
  2. chuckles

    I understand why the government doesnt invest as much money into schools as they should. a stupid/misinformed population is much easier to manipulate and distract. Honestly, imagine if everyone was taught in depth about south american history and America's involvement in exploiting those people instead of being fed the propaganda and watered down version of history taught in high schools. especially now in difficult economic times you definately dont want the educated and unemployed to start trouble like whats happening in the arab spring.

    September 13, 2011 at 11:16 pm |
    • Dearypie

      Right on! It really is sad the the "haves" (the rich, powerful, influential, etc) don't see how dis-empower the workforce or rather the population that they rely on hurts them in the long run just as much as those who dis-empowered.

      November 3, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  3. Tuula

    Not all college degrees are useful. Some are a waste of time and money.

    September 14, 2011 at 9:15 am |
  4. bobalu

    College is too expensive.
    They need to bring the cost of a quality education down. I suggest the schools become a hybrid of online universities and traditional ones. Why do I have to sit through a lecture from some teacher when the same lecture has been already given a thousand times at a thousand different universities. Put the lectures online in a national (or international) lecture bank where we can watch them at home and then come to class and discuss them. This way teachers can spend their time more productively instead of regurgitating information we could get more efficiently ourselves. Also, why is it that every semester students have to spend hundreds of dollars buying this years latest text books (often poorly written by the wannabe authors who are teaching the courses). History, maths and sciences books do not become outdated so quickly. Put the books online where I can download a PDF for free. It's ridiculous that college grads are starting out their careers so in debt.

    September 14, 2011 at 11:09 am |
  5. Adam Hoeksema

    Student loan debit is at about 1 Trillion dollars!

    Unemployment rate for recent college grads is at nearly 10.8%

    Something needs to change. In my opinion students need to be connecting with businesses more while they are still in school. I am the co-founder of a startup company called StringHub which connects university student class projects with businesses who can utilize the projects and provide a real world learning experience for students at the same time.

    We are looking for businesses and professors to beta test our platform at!

    September 14, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  6. madgame

    You force students to take 2 years of ridiculous general education courses, instead of the technical ones they're interested in, and wonder why they quit? If you're paying good money to become a scientist or engineer, why should they have to take a years worth of Chicano Studies and Art History courses? Well-rounded, my a$$.

    Meanwhile...the only science courses Liberal Arts students have to take is Growing Weed 101.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Dearypie

      The major problem with many students going to college today is that they lack BASIC math, reading, writing, and fact based-knowledge. How in the world are you supposed to be an engineer if you're unable to multiple or divide single digits? If you haven't the foggiest clue on how your government works, how pray tell are you supposed to understand how to work and contribute successfully to society? See the problem. Maybe if students were better educated from high school there wouldn't need to be so many gen eds needed.

      November 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  7. Sci1

    The cost of education continues to increase because States have less money than they once had. Everytime you give tax breaks, there is less money to pass out to the States. When States have to cut their budgets (as they are doing now) one of the first cuts they tend to make is education. So, Colleges and Universities have less funding. No one ever talks about this issue. They think that Colleges and Universities just decide to increase tuition.

    September 15, 2011 at 9:18 am |
  8. EducationUSA

    The same people complaining about African Americans on too much welfare and lets cut abortion funding are the same ones cutting education costs in there states. Everyone deserves an equal education. Sucky teachers who are lucky enough to get tenure dont give a crap about there students- why should they be allowed to teach? The system as a whole needs to change starting at a K-12 level before we go ahead and even begin to talk about college.

    September 15, 2011 at 10:33 am |
  9. Alexander Bain

    This is a smart blog.

    September 21, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  10. imastarchick

    Everyone is missing the cause of this.... College education costs began skyrocketing in the early 90'swhen the federal government began to give incentives to schools and banks for direct student loans to colleges: Salle Maes. Just like the mortgage loan crisis, this allowed many students to get a college education which they couldnt afford. At the same time the ease of getting a student loan allowed colleges to raise their costs way beyond the rate of inflation... just like the housing bubble. A portion of the houseing bubble was parents refinancing their homes into risky loans so their kids could go to college. This has all been a banking scheme to get young people signed on to mortgage size loans before they even have a future.

    September 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
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  12. Nalliah Thayabharan

    A year at elite Princeton University costs a student $37,000. But a year in a New Jersey state prison costs $43,000 per prisoner. The US has more people incarcerated than any country on the world, but places only sixth in college degrees.

    November 11, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
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