Higher Education

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Higher education trends are moving in many directions at once as educators, policy makers, and students attempt to address the many disparities in cost and the quality application of education. No one answer rises up to the top of the debate at the complexity of the issue reveals itself. Cost is a reflection of the general nature of American wage stagnation, debt reliance, and the perceived need for profits. The applications of education are in part up to the ingenuity and passion of the students, who seem to be withdrawing from this challenge.

Thoughts on Higher Education

The debate on higher education tuition is not as simple as lowering tuition costs. The Higher Education Act required colleges to publish a tuition number, but this does not represent the full contextual cost of college. Rather, five numbers could be shared to give a broader spectrum of the cost of college:

1. How much they spend each year on educating each student; 

2. The range a family is expected to contribute to that expense, from zero to a maximum; 

3. How much a family contributes on average; 

4. The range of what a college itself will contribute for each student; 

5. How much the college contributes on average to the total expense for each student. (Allen)

Another aspect that the tuition number is not accurate is that the tuition number is often a “sticker price” which is subject to inflation or deflation due to the nature of the college and the nature of the student. For instance, “At Ivy Leagues and top liberal arts colleges, whose tuition announcements get lots of attention…The majority of families whose children attend these elite schools pay less, as determined by their level of financial need” (Allen). However it is opposite in the case of the most elite colleges, for whom the real cost of educating any student for a year is “greater than the “sticker price” … In the Ivies and top liberal arts colleges today, a reasonable estimate would put that number in the territory of $100,000, whereas the “sticker price” clocks in at about $65,000” (Allen). There are many factors which increase the growth of this cost every year, not least of which is simple inflation. 

Looking at the entire contextual question of stifling tuition costs, some researchers propose changes which could actually cut the cost of education for students as well as the institutions of higher learning. It has been suggested this could be done through:

Cap administrative costs

The biggest increase in cost per student at large research universities …was not in instruction but in administration: student services, institutional support, research and academic support

Operate year-round, five days a week

Roughly $1 billion worth of facilities that sat idle for at least a third of the year. If he could reconfigure the academic calendar for year-round operation, he reasoned, he could enroll thousands more students without having to build new classrooms, labs, dorms or athletic facilities

More teaching, less (mediocre) research

Few students or parents realize that tuition doesn’t just pay for faculty members to teach. It also pays for their research-reflects a deliberate shift in focus as universities compete for big-name professors by promising lighter teaching loads and more time for research

Cheaper, better general education

Universities have gotten more serious about requiring a minimum proficiency in writing and quantitative reasoning, but the rest of general education tends to be an intellectual cop-out. Students are presented with dozens of courses in four or five broad categories and are told to choose two or three from each. (Pearlstein)

Making these changes would change the fundamental nature of how college’s operate, but changes are definitely needed. As shown in the graph below, college tuition grows consistently, while at the same time,

(Figure 1 omitted for preview. Available via download).

Median family income in the United States rose at an average rate of 0.7% per year between 1985 and 1995 and 0.8% per year between 1995 and 2005. Between 2005 and 2014, median family income declined at an average rate of 0.2% per year, after adjusting for inflation. (The College Board)

The rates of college tuition growth far exceed the average American’s ability to pay for it, and this is increased exponentially if these figures were informed by the rate of debt most Americans hold. When the added debt of college financing is added on many find themselves in a position of indentured slavery. This has led to increasing rates of college students returning to live at home after graduating. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2014, “for the first time in more than 130 years, adults ages 18 to 34 were slightly more likely to be living in their parents’ home than they were to be living with a spouse or partner in their own household” (Fry). Today’s young graduates are no longer motivated to put their education to industrious use largely in part because they feel overwhelmed by the cost of doing so, and the perceived limitations of their education. 

Understanding that colleges often allow the extremes of many general courses, and a few highly specific one’s which are left up to the instructor’s research focus, it is no surprise that many college graduates are stunningly unprepared for the real world. Elite college graduates often find their lack of vocational majors puts them at a disadvantage when forced with a shrinking specialized economy (McCarthy). On the other hand the majority of average graduates today “think they possess the critical thinking skills needed to succeed in the workplace. Employers, on the other hand, are far less optimistic. Less than a third think newly minted college grads are ready for the real world” (Hyde and Bravo). Bottom line, research and experience shows that today’s colleges are not teaching what students need to succeed in the real world. Either college curriculum is too specialized or not specialized enough. As a result graduates are left with very expensive and largely useless pieces of paper. 

(Figure 3 omitted for preview. Available via download).

Trends in Higher Education This Year

There are many converging issues trending in higher education right now. Each one is a symptom of the culture at large:

Campus safety certainly is going to get more attention from senior administration—and how we are perceived by prospective students and their families will impact their “buying decision.”

The transition from a military career to the civilian workforce lacks uniformity and higher education institutions are experiencing progressive increases in veteran enrollments.

[Alarmingly] Competency-based education will fade in 2016 as more colleges and universities grow to realize that the cost of building a trackable model becomes burdensome and the realization dawns that students don't really care about it.

A continuing decline in state funding for public four year colleges has created a desire for out of state students and minorities to help bring lost revenue back to the budget.

Greater online learning.

Nanodegrees will begin to grow as students seek particular skills that will allow them entree into specific industries. (University Business Staff)


Trends in higher education are largely uncoordinated and reactionary. Until the fundamentals of wage stagnation in the face of ever increasing inflation is addressed it is unlikely the cost disparities of college will be resolved. Students faced with the challenges of a stagnating education culture in the face of a changing economy must be creative.


1: Chart retrieved from: https://trends.collegeboard.org/content/average-rates-growth-published-charges-decade-0

2: Chart retrieved from: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/429376/the-crisis-in-higher-education/

Works Cited

Allen, Daniel. “Tuition is now a useless concept in higher education.” The Washington Post, 19 Aug. 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/tuition-is-now-a-useless-concept-in-higher-education/2016/08/19/678e74ec-3261-11e6-8758-d58e76e11b12_story.html?utm_term=.2a99819b0e7d

Carr, Nicholas. “The Crisis in Higher Education.” MIT Technology Review, 27 Sep. 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/429376/the-crisis-in-higher-education/

Fry, Richard. “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18- to 34-Year-Olds.” Pew Social Trends, 24 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2016/05/24/for-first-time-in-modern-era-living-with-parents-edges-out-other-living-arrangements-for-18-to-34-year-olds/

Hyde, John, and Amy Bravo. “Students Think They're Ready For The Real World; Employers, Not So Much.” Forbes, 21 Sep. 2015. Retrieved from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/09/21/students-think-theyre-ready-for-the-real-world-employers-not-so-much/#141260833e81

Pearlstein, Steen. “Four tough things universities should do to rein in costs.” The Washington Post, 25 Nov. 2015. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/four-tough-things-universities-should-do-to-rein-in-costs/2015/11/25/64fed3de-92c0-11e5-a2d6-f57908580b1f_story.html?utm_term=.423dc6eb7b16

University Business Staff. “Higher ed thought leaders forecast 2016 trends.” University Business Review, 1 Jan. 2016. Retrieved from: https://www.universitybusiness.com/article/higher-ed-thought-leaders-forecast-2016-trends

McCarthy, Jenna. “How Elite Universities Leave Their Students Unprepared For the Real World.” Mic.com, 8 Jul. 2013. Retrieved from: https://mic.com/articles/50939/how-elite-universities-leave-their-students-unprepared-for-the-real-world#.MVyGWgyL6

The College Board. “Average Rates of Growth of Published Charges by Decade.” College Board, 2016. Retrieved from: https://trends.collegeboard.org/content/average-rates-growth-published-charges-decade-0