Degrees need value beyond “a purchased résumé item”

According to a 2011 Harvard study, only 56 percent of students who begin a bachelor’s degree program in America finish within six years. Why do so many college students drop out? A Pew Research Center survey from 2011 states, “A majority of Americans (57 percent) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority — 75 percent — says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford.” A different Pew Research Center survey from 2009 states, “Seventy-three percent of all adults agreed that, in order to get ahead in life these days, it is necessary to get a college education.” It appears that Americans find college valuable but overly expensive. This may be related not only to the monetary cost of college, but also to the value of what students get for their tuition.

An article published in The Atlantic this month cited Department of Education statistics with these results: “While starting salaries vary by major, total student-loan debt doesn’t vary that much at all, leaving creative-writing majors with about as much debt as someone who majored in something more lucrative, such as finance.” Students view higher education as an expensive way to get ahead, but cost-benefit analysis goes beyond tuition cost. The perceived usefulness of a degree in the job market and the difficulty in attaining a certain degree also inform students’ decisions as to whether to continue along in their college careers. The latter element probably explains why so many students, perhaps ill-prepared by their public high school education, drop out of STEM degree programs which are required for entry into most STEM careers, which themselves often pay well enough.

The former element may explain why students drop out of liberal arts degree programs. While English degree programs help students to write better, and art degree programs do teach students the basics of visual design, it’s all too apparent that the humanities are interested in propagating academic culture, rather than preparing students for real-world job market requirements. English majors wonder why they are being inundated with Western literature as preparation to become content generators for online outlets. Some eventually decide the résumé item of the degree isn’t worth the apparently wasteful expenditure of their tuition.

This isn’t to say that those of us who are English majors don’t recognize the value of Beowulf or Paradise Lost — it’s just that their study is almost entirely irrelevant to our future careers. Nobody spends so much money for the experience of learning what can be learned elsewhere on the cheap. Tuition money is spent because students want the hireability of the degree. With the advent of Massive Open Online Courses, this argument is now applicable even to some STEM degrees. Although such a route would entail the lack of the personal accreditation mechanism provided by college, it is possible for a student to learn the basics of mathematics and computer science virtually for free online. Since technical fields thrive on their workers’ understanding, tested or untested, of their core processes and theorems, forgoing college may seem like the most cost effective way to move forward for those who find a way to prove hireability beyond the degree.

Solving the apparent problem of the drop-out rate would require an overhaul of the mechanisms behind the dramatically rising costs of tuition rates including needed checks on administrator pay, a fix for a broken accreditation system and a re-vamped student loan system reflective of varying earnings by major/career, but would also require that schools evaluate the value of the product they are providing. Degrees would be considered more valuable if they came not only as a purchased résumé item, but also with relevant education, provided at a cost reflective of the real-world cost of attaining such knowledge.

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