Beware These ‘Truisms’ About Higher Education

Despite the flame-throwing heat in today’s public discourse, it’s actually possible to find agreement—to weigh two conflicting ideas at once. That, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, is the test of a first-rate intelligence.

Consider three common truisms about higher education:

– College costs are skyrocketing.

– People don’t need education to get good jobs.

– Americans are turning their backs on higher education.

As a thought experiment, imagine these are correct; widely held beliefs typically include at least a grain of truth, after all. But then imagine a room filled with top business executives. In fact, imagine any group of well-off people and consider: What do they want for their children?

We know the answer because we’ve already asked. Wealthier families are more likely to send their offspring to college because they recognize the life-long benefits that come with a college education Those families reinforce early achievements, have higher academic expectations, and enroll their children in activities that prepare them for higher ed.

They do this because they know it works. The benefits of higher education—not just four-year degrees, but all high-quality education and training beyond high school—are well documented. For example, Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce says that, on average, a bachelor’s degree adds $2.8 million to a person’s lifetime earnings. Other studies document the longer, healthier lifestyles of graduates who receive all types of postsecondary credentials.

There are numerous problems with higher ed, of course, but it’s still far better, on average, to have a college-level credential than to try to navigate today’s complex world with just a high school diploma.

This is the stuff of argument around some holiday tables, where those three truisms are likely to be cited. So, here are a few helpful facts:

College costs have recently dropped.

Students today bear a much larger proportion of the cost of education than in the past. However, after adjusting for inflation, the cost of attendance and the average net price the last three years have fallen by about 10 percent.

Don’t cheer yet. Prices have dropped recently, which is encouraging. But long-term affordability questions still need to be addressed. The recent good news follows 40 years(!) of increases that have nearly tripled the average price, adjusted for inflation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Brookings Institution, which ran the numbers, says the recent reduction may only be a pause.

“In today’s environment, institutions again find themselves in a situation where their revenue is restricted,” a Brookings report said. “That leaves revenue from students as a primary source of support to fill in gaps moving forward.” This is a classic case where public policy needs to be deployed to address an urgent challenge that could profoundly influence the nation’s prosperity and economic competitiveness.

The bright spot: Nearly 70 percent of Americans feel comfortable with their tax dollars going to public four-year universities, according to a recent study by New America. For community colleges, the support was more than 80 percent. The public has its doubts, but there’s still strong support for public investment in education—particularly to ensure that it remains affordable to average Americans.

The demand for all types of credentials is growing.

Full-time college isn’t the only answer, of course. Many people, including older, family-supporting students, can’t afford not to work, and they need short term, skills-based credentials. In a tight labor market, at least 14 states have dropped degree requirements for many state jobs.

And a study last year by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 71 percent of executives said some credentials were equivalent to a BA. But that figure was only 36 percent among HR professionals, the people usually closest to hiring decisions.

For some hired without a degree, in information technology for example, there’s a recognition that they must keep learning.

“Certificates are huge in IT. A certificate will get you in the door,” one woman told The Hechinger Report. “But if you’re going to go anywhere, you need that [B.A.] in addition.”

Indeed, more than 40 percent of factory workers now have a college degree, the Wall Street Journal found. That’s nearly double the rate in 1991. Increasing investments in automation will continue to change manufacturing—and the knowledge needed on the factory floor.

“The workers who remain do much more cognitively demanding jobs,” David Autor, an economics professor at MIT, told the Journal.

The point is that high pay frequently travels with postsecondary credentials. The semiconductor workforce typically earns more than twice the average of all factory workers, according to a report from Oxford Economics and the Semiconductor Industry Association.

Using Bureau of Labor Statistics data, the report said those in the industry with a high school diploma could expect to earn about $40,000, compared with $60,000 for people with some college, and $120,000 for those with a bachelor’s degree.

Enrollment may be stabilizing.

Undergraduate college enrollment has been in decline for more than a decade and dropped sharply during the pandemic, leaving schools with more than a million fewer students. Higher ed is increasingly reaching out to older people, students of color, and some of the 40 million people who have some college but no degree.

There are signs this is working. Undergraduate enrollment this fall increased for the first time since the pandemic. The increase was 2.1 percent overall, and 4.4 percent at community colleges.

And no wonder: “Nearly three-fourths of all adults say a college degree is as important as (35 percent) or more important (39 percent) than it was 20 years ago,” according to a recent survey from Gallup and Lumina Foundation.

Strong proponents of education beyond high school now include the United Auto Workers. The union notes that vocational training programs and apprenticeships—which foster learning and build skills well beyond the high school level—prepare people for the jobs of tomorrow.

“Apprenticeships in skilled trades and high-growth fields such as advanced manufacturing are an investment in our country’s future,” the UAW has said.

“Eighty-seven percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs, with an average starting wage of over $50,000. Many countries throughout the world have recognized the importance of apprenticeship training programs for decades, and it is long past time we do so as well.”

It’s true that college is still too expensive. And schools need to recognize the needs of today’s students, who often must juggle jobs and family responsibilities along with their studies. Graduation rates are too low.

But recall Fitzgerald’s point about the necessity of considering conflicting evidence simultaneously. Yes, there’s a long list of things to fix. But the demand for talent keeps rising. Millions of jobs remain unfilled—partially idling the nation’s productivity—because companies can’t find qualified applicants. And economists predict the nation will require many more workers with BA degrees than in the past.

We shouldn’t be blind to higher ed’s faults, but we certainly shouldn’t let those faults blind us to reality. Progress doesn’t require perfection.

Higher ed, even with its shortcomings, remains a vital engine that can power the economy, strengthen our democracy, and improve social and cultural well-being.

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