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Degrees Of Value: Making College Pay Off

In the field of higher education, reality is outrunning parody. A recent feature on the satire website the Onion proclaimed, '30-Year-Old Has Earned $11 More Than He Would Have Without College Education.' Allowing for tuition, interest on student loans, and four years of foregone income while in school, the fictional student 'Patrick Moorhouse' wasn't much better off. His years of stress and study, the article japed, 'have been more or less a financial wash.'

'Patrick' shouldn't feel too bad. Many college graduates would be happy to be $11 ahead instead of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, behind. The credit-driven higher education bubble of the past several decades has left legions of students deep in debt without improving their job prospects. To make college a good value again, today's parents and students need to be skeptical, frugal and demanding. There is no single solution to what ails higher education in the U.S., but changes are beginning to emerge, from outsourcing to online education, and they could transform the system.

Though the GI Bill converted college from a privilege of the rich to a middle-class expectation, the higher education bubble really began in the 1970s, as colleges that had expanded to serve the baby boom saw the tide of students threatening to ebb. Congress came to the rescue with federally funded student aid, like Pell Grants and, in vastly greater dollar amounts, student loans.

Predictably enough, this financial assistance led colleges and universities to raise tuition and fees to absorb the resources now available to their students. As University of Michigan economics and finance professor Mark Perry has calculated, tuition for all universities, public and private, increased from 1978 to 2011 at an annual rate of 7.45%. By comparison, health-care costs increased by only 5.8%, and housing, notwithstanding the bubble, increased at 4.3%. Family incomes, on the other hand, barely kept up with the consumer-price index, which grew at an annual rate of 3.8%.

For many families, the gap between soaring tuition costs and stagnant incomes was filled by debt. Today's average student debt of $29,400 may not sound overwhelming, but many students, especially at private and out-of-state colleges, end up owing much more, often more than $100,000. At the same time, four in 10 college graduates, according to a recent Gallup study, wind up in jobs that don't require a college degree.

Students and parents have started to reject this unsustainable arrangement, and colleges and universities have felt the impact. According to a recent analysis by this newspaper, private schools are facing a long-term decline in enrollment. More than a quarter of private institutions have suffered a drop of 10% or more -- in some cases, much more. Midway College in Kentucky is laying off around a dozen of its 54 faculty members; Wittenberg University in Ohio is eliminating nearly 30 of about 140 full-time faculty slots; and Pine Manor College in Massachusetts, with dorm space for 600 students but only 300 enrolled, has gone coed in hopes of bringing in more warm bodies.

Even elite institutions haven't been spared, as schools such as Haverford, Morehouse, and Wellesley have seen their credit ratings downgraded by Moody's over doubts about the viability of their high tuition/high overhead business models. Law schools, including Albany Law School, Brooklyn Law School and Thomas Jefferson Law School, have also seen credit downgrades over similar doubts. And now Democrats on Capitol Hill are pushing legislation to give colleges 'skin in the game' by clawing back federal aid money from schools with high student-loan default rates. Expect such proposals to get traction in 2014.

America's higher education problem calls for both wiser choices by families and better value from schools. For some students, this will mean choosing a major carefully (opting for a more practical area of study, like engineering over the humanities), going to a less expensive community college or skipping college altogether to learn a trade.

For their part, schools must adjust to the new economic reality, as some already have. In 2011, the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., cut tuition by 10%. The discount not only increased enrollment but, ultimately, brought in more money. For academic year 2014-15, Ashland University in Ohio has cut its tuition by 37% -- more than $10,000. Faced with plummeting applications, the law schools at George Mason, Penn State, Seton Hall and the University of Iowa have rolled back or frozen their tuition fees.

Many colleges, according to a survey released last spring by the National Association of College and University Business Officers, are also offering hidden discounts in the form of increased financial aid. The survey found that for the fall of 2013, the average 'tuition discount rate' for incoming freshmen (that is, the reduction of the list price through grants and scholarships) hit an all-time high of 45%. Such variable pricing is likely to become more widely publicized in the future as competition for students increases and as parents paying full tuition object to being taken advantage of.

But discounts don't address the real problem: high costs. What's really needed in U.S. higher education is major structural change. To remain viable, colleges and universities need to cut expenditures dramatically. For decades, they have ridden the student-loan gravy train, using the proceeds to build palatial buildings, reduce faculty teaching loads and, most notably, hire armies of administrators.

Most of the growth in higher education costs, according to a 2010 study by the Goldwater Institute, a libertarian think tank, comes from administrative bloat, with administrative staff growing at more than twice the rate of instructional staff. At the University of Michigan, for example, there are 53% more administrators than faculty, and similar ratios can be found at other institutions.

Under financial pressure, many schools have already farmed out the teaching of classes to low-paid adjuncts who have no job security and often no benefits.

This approach could be extended to administration, replacing salaried employees with low-paid 'adjunct administrators' to handle routine functions. Many in the corporate world have reaped considerable savings by outsourcing back-office functions, and there is no reason this approach can't work in higher education. (If U.S. News & World Report wants to improve its widely cited college rankings, it might start by giving schools credit for leaner administration.)

Another reform that would be useful at both public and private institutions is budget transparency. University finances are notoriously Byzantine, and administrators generally like it that way. But change is afoot here too.

Several years ago, the state of Oregon launched a website, updated daily, that shows where every state dollar is spent. The result: Anyone can see how much Oregon's higher-education system is spending on things like travel, instruction and athletics. This is the sort of transparency that taxpayers should demand from public universities -- and perhaps even from private universities that receive significant amounts of public money, as nearly all do.

New instructional methods can also contribute to cost savings. Online courses are already making inroads, and the model makes intuitive sense for many subjects: Take the top teachers in a field and give online access to their lectures to students at many different colleges. There isn't a lot of one-on-one interaction in such courses, but how much genuine interaction is there in a live 200-student lecture class?

Once students have acquired basic instruction in larger, less personal classes, they can apply it in smaller advanced classes, where they would deal with faculty face to face. This approach is already used to great effect by the popular Khan Academy, a sophisticated not-for-profit website where primary and secondary students view lectures at their convenience and perfect their skills through video-game-like software. Students can then use classroom time to work through problems with teachers and apply what they have learned. The idea is to take advantage of mass delivery where it works best and to allow individualized attention where it helps most.

Traditional universities are experimenting too. The Georgia Institute of Technology is offering an entirely online master's degree in computer science for $7,000. This isn't a ghettoized offering from the extension school but rather, in the words of Georgia Tech Provost Rafael Bras, 'a full-service degree.' The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has already put many of its courses online; you can learn from them and even get certification, but there is no degree attached. If MIT were to add standard exams and a diploma, its online degree might be worth a lot -- perhaps not as much as an old-fashioned MIT degree but more than a degree from many existing bricks-and-mortar schools.

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Another alternative, already beginning to get some traction, lies in the rise of various certification systems. A college degree is often used by employers as an indication that its holder has a reasonable ability to read, write, show up on time and deal with others. But many employers are unhappy with the skills that today's graduates possess.

This has led to the rise of certification schemes from within the higher education world, including the revised Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) and ACT's WorkKeys, which is explicitly aimed at employment skills. Manufacturing companies are working with online schools and community colleges to create 'stackable certificates' that vouch for specific competencies. Such programs may someday bypass higher education entirely, testing and certifying people's skills regardless of how they obtained them.

But what about the 'college experience' -- late-night dorm bull sessions, partying and pizza? Won't it be ruined by these new approaches to instruction? Not necessarily.

We may eventually see the rise of 'hoteling' for college students whose courses are done primarily online. Build a nice campus -- or buy one, from a defunct traditional school -- put in a lot of amenities, but don't bother hiring faculty: Just bring in your courses online, with engineering from Georgia Tech, arts and literature from Yale, business from Stanford and so on. Hire some unemployed Ph.D.s as tutors (there will be plenty around, available at bargain-basement rates) and offer an unbundled experience. It's a business model that just might work, especially in geographic locations students favor. Grand Cayman is awfully nice this time of year.

On the other hand, for some students, avoiding the traditional campus-based college scene might be a boon in the long run. Recent research by the sociologists Elizabeth Armstrong of the University of Michigan and Laura Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, points to the problem of what they call the 'party pathway.' In a study they conducted among 48 female students in one residence hall at Indiana University from 2004 to 2009, they found that young women who were similar in terms of 'predictors' (grades and test scores) nonetheless emerged from college on very different career trajectories. Those from more modest circumstances were often done in by their partying-related stumbles and actually experienced downward mobility after graduating.

None of these alternatives to a traditional university degree is 'the answer' to the higher education bubble. And we certainly shouldn't discard entirely the old-fashioned approach to college, whatever its shortcomings. A rigorous liberal arts education, with an emphasis on reading carefully and writing clearly, remains a tremendous asset, for employment as for citizenship. (The key word here, however, is 'rigorous.')

But there is no point in trying to preserve the old regime. Today's emphasis on measuring college education in terms of future earnings and employability may strike some as philistine, but most students have little choice. When you could pay your way through college by waiting tables, the idea that you should 'study what interests you' was more viable than it is today, when the cost of a four-year degree often runs to six figures. For an 18-year-old, investing such a sum in an education without a payoff makes no more sense than buying a Ferrari on credit.

The economist Herbert Stein once said that if something can't go on forever, it will stop. The pattern of the last few decades, in which higher education costs grew much faster than incomes, with the difference made up by borrowing, can't go on forever. As students and parents begin to apply the brakes, colleges need to find ways to make that stop a smooth one rather than a crash.

在高等教育领域,现实正在超越戏仿。讽刺戏谑网站洋葱网(the Onion)近来刊登的一篇特写文章宣称:“如果没有受过大学教育,一30岁男子会比现在少挣11美元。”考虑到学费,学生贷款利息和四年读书期间放弃的收入,这位虚构出来的学生“帕特里克•穆尔豪斯(Patrick Moorhouse)”所受的大学教育并没给他的收入带来多大提振。该文章嘲弄道,他多年的苦读和经受的压力 “在财务上或多或少显得得不偿失”。


虽然美国《退伍军人权利法案》(the GI Bill)将上大学从富人的一项特权变成了中产阶级的期望,但高等教育泡沫真正酿发却始于20世纪70年代。那时,旨在应对婴儿潮而扩建的高等院校却遭遇了生源下滑的威胁。美国国会就此伸出援手,提出由联邦政府出资的学生补助,如佩尔奖学金(Pell Grants),以及总数庞大得多的巨额学生贷款。

结果不出所料,这项财政资助导致高等院校提高了学杂费,用以吸纳如今其学生通过上述渠道可获得的资金。正如密歇根大学(University of Michigan) 经济及金融学教授马克·派瑞(Mark Perry)的统计所示,1978至2011年间,美国公、私立大学学费以每年7.45%的速度逐年增长。相较而言,医保费用每年的增速仅为5.8%,就连房产──尽管是泡沫──其每年涨幅也只有4.3%。另一方面,家庭收入的涨幅却难以跟上消费物价指数,前者的年增长率为3.8%。


学生和家长已开始抗拒这种不可持续的安排,诸多高校也切身感受到了相关影响。据《华尔街日报》(The Wall Street Journal)日前的一项分析表明,私立学校面对着注册入学人数长期下滑的困境。超过四分之一的私立机构生源已缩减10%或逾10%──在有些情况下,这一数据还要高得多。肯塔基州(Kentucky)的米德威学院 (Midway College)正在裁员,该校54名教职员工中要裁去12人;俄亥俄州(Ohio)的威腾博格大学(Wittenberg University)也从其140名全职教职工中削减了近30名员工;而马萨诸塞州(Massachusetts)的波士顿松堡学院(Pine Manor College)虽建有能容纳600名学生的宿舍,却只有300名注册入学的学生。该校已改为男女同校,希望籍此招揽来更多的生源。

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甚至连精英名校也未能幸免,像哈佛大学(Haverford)、莫尔豪斯学院(Morehouse)以及卫斯理学院(Wellesley)就因其高学费/高管理开销的商业模式是否切实可行遭到质疑而被穆迪(Moody)下调了信用评级。而包括奥尔巴尼法学院(Albany Law School)、布鲁克林法学院(Brooklyn Law School)、托马斯·杰斐逊法学院(Thomas Jefferson Law School)在内的多家法学院也因受到类似的质疑而遭信用评级下调。眼下,美国国会的民主党人正在推动相关立法,通过从学生贷款违约率高的院校手中追回联邦资助金来使各大高校与政府“风险共担”。希望这样的提案能在2014年拉动经济。


从学校方面来讲,他们必须作出调整以适应新的经济现状,正如有些院校已做的那样。2011年,田纳西州的西沃恩南方大学(the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn.)就将学费削减了10%。这样的折扣不仅使入学人数增加了,而且最终也让学校赚到了更多。在2014至2015学年度,俄亥俄州的阿什兰大学(Ashland University in Ohio)已将其学费下调了37%──削减金额超过10,000美元。面对直线下降的入学申请,乔治梅森大学(George Mason)、宾夕法尼亚州立大学(Penn State)、西顿霍尔大学(Seton Hall)以及爱荷华大学(University of Iowa)的法学院都已压低学杂费或将其保持在一个不变的水平。

据全美高校经营管理者协会(National Association of College and University Business Officers)去年春季发布的一项调查显示,许多院校也正已以增加助学金这样的方式来提供隐形折扣。该调查发现,对于2013年秋季刚入校的新生,平均“学费折扣率”(即通过提供助学金和奖学金对标价进行削减的部分)已触及45%的历史最高水平。随着争夺生源的竞争日趋激烈、支付全额学费的家长也不愿再吃亏上当,这样的可变定价在未来可能会得到更广泛的宣传。


据自由主义智库戈德华特研究所(Goldwater Institute)2010年的一项研究表明,高等教育成本增高大多源于行政管理部门臃肿冗杂,行政管理人员的增长速度超过了教学人员增速的两倍。举个例子,在密歇根大学(University of Michigan),行政管理人员数量就比教职工人数多出了53%,而在其他高校,你也会发现相似的比例数据。


这种办法有可能将扩展至行政管理部门,即用低薪的“兼职行政人员”替代受薪雇员来处理日常工作。企业界的许多公司已通过将内勤业务外包出去节约了大量成本,所以在高等教育界,该方法理应奏效。(如果《美国新闻与世界报道》(U.S. News & World Report)想要提升其被广泛转载、引用的院校排名业务,也许它可以从这点做起:给那些精简行政管理部门的学校一些好评。)


几年前,俄勒冈州(the state of Oregon)建了一个网站,每日进行更新,上面罗列了该州的每一块钱都花在了哪儿。结果是:每个人都能看见俄勒冈州的高等教育体系在诸如旅游、教育和田径运动等方方面面到底花了多少钱。这就是纳税人应向公立大学要求的透明度──甚至应该向接受巨额公共款项的私立大学也提出同样的要求,因为几乎所有的私立大学都收到了这类款项。


一旦学生们在规模更大、个人色彩更淡的大课上掌握了基本知识,他们便可以申请去上规模更小的高级班。在小班里,他们可能会和教职人员进行面对面的交流。这种方法已经被受人欢迎的可汗学院(Khan Academy)所使用、产生了巨大的影响。可汗学院是一家成熟完备的非营利性网站,中小学生在他们方便的时候可以在该网站通过类似视频游戏的软件观看讲座、精进完善自己的技能。之后,学生便可利用课堂时间与老师一起解决问题,并将他们所学的知识应用到实践中去。该理念正是利用了大众传播的特点,使其在这一平台上效果最佳,该理念同时还允许个性化的关注,使其发挥了最大的效用。

传统大学也在进行新的尝试。佐治亚理工学院(The Georgia Institute of Technology)现就提供计算机科学的全程网络硕士学位,学费为7,000美元(约合人民币42,000元)。这门课并不是该学院分校单开出来的课程,用佐治亚理工学院(Georgia Tech)教务长拉斐尔·布拉斯(Rafael Bras)的话来说,这是“一个提供全方位服务的学位。”麻省理工学院(The Massachusetts Institute of Technology)已将其许多课程都放到了网上;你可以在线学习这些课,甚至获得相关证书,但不会附带任何学位。如果麻省理工学院增添一些标准化考试与一纸文凭,其网络学位可能会极具价值──也许比不上老式的麻省理工学院学位,但比现存的许多实体院校颁发的学位含金量都要高。


这一现状从高等教育界内部催生了认证体系的崛起,包括修订后的大学生学习评估(Collegiate Learning Assessment, CLA+)以及由ACT推出的、明确旨在考核职业技能的WorkKeys体系。制造业公司正在与网络学校、社区院校一道致力于创造出能够证明持有者具有某些特殊职业胜任能力的、“简单易用的证书”。这类项目也许会在某天完全绕过高等教育,测试并认证人们的技能,而不管被测试者是如何掌握这些技能的。


我们最终可能会目睹服务于高校学生的“酒店式宿舍”的兴起,这些学生的课程学习主要通过网络完成。建设一座美丽的校园──或者从一所已倒闭的传统院校买下一个校区──配置诸多设施,但千万别费事儿招什么教职员工:只要把你的课程放在网上,教学内容涵盖佐治亚理工学院的工程学、耶鲁大学(Yale)的艺术与文学,斯坦福大学(Stanford)的商科等等。聘用一些失业的博士来当导师(你周围到处都是,用低廉的价格便能招来),并对他们进行分类定价。这是一种可能会奏效的商业模式,尤其在学生青睐的地理位置更是如此。譬如,每年的这个时季,大开曼岛(Grand Cayman)就美不胜收。

另一方面,对有些学生而言,避免传统的那种立基于校园的大学场景长期来看可能是一种福利。最近,密歇根大学(University of Michigan)社会学家伊丽莎白·阿姆斯特朗(Elizabeth Armstrong)与加州大学默塞德分校(the University of California, Merced)社会学家劳拉·汉密尔顿(Laura Hamilton)指出了一个被他们称为“聚会之路”的问题。2004年至2009年间,他们对印第安纳大学(Indiana University)一栋宿舍中的48名女学生进行了一项研究,结果发现,那些在“预测因素”(学分和考试成绩)方面相似的年轻女性在大学毕业后却踏上了截然不同的职业生涯轨迹。那些来自更困顿境况中的人常常因为聚会相关的牵绊而疲惫不堪,他们在毕业之后也遭遇了向下流动。



经济学家赫伯特·斯坦(Herbert Stein)曾经说过,如果一样东西不能永以为继,它就将消停。在过去几十年的模式中,高等教育成本增长远远快于收入──举债让这看起来有所不同──但这种局面无法永远维持下去。当学生和家长开始采刹车停下来时,高等院校就得想想方法,将其变成一次平稳的刹车,千万别让局面失控。



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