Administrative bloat, piles of student debt hint colleges a legacy system

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The average debt load for students attending UTC in Chattanooga is around $14,000.

The courtyard outside the library at UTC. The average debt load for students at the government university in Chattanooga is around $14,000.

[This essay appears in the April 1 edition of Esprit newsletter, serving hundreds of homeschool families in the Chattanooga area. — DJT]

By Charles Hugh Smith

Once we accredit the student, not the institution, existing universities will compete directly with Nearly Free Universities not in issuing diplomas but in how much students actually learned and mastered.

One of the key insights from recent work in psychology is that humans tend to substitute easier problems rather than solve difficult problems. Daniel Kahneman explained this dynamic in his recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

To “solve” a difficult problem we are unfamiliar with, we substitute a lesser problem we already know the answer to, and then declare we’ve “solved” the original (often knotty, complex) problem.

The real problem then festers, unsolved and addressed, while the misguided “solution” only drains resources and exacerbates the real problem.

An excellent example of this dynamic is higher education: the real problems are soaring costs and sharply declining yields in actual learning and in the real-world value of a diploma.

Consider the study “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses” which concluded that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.”

The yield (in earnings) on the increasingly unaffordable college degree is declining sharply: The status quo has substituted two false “solutions” that completely ignore the real problems of soaring costs and diminishing returns: increasing student loans and hiring hundreds of thousands of non-teaching administrators.

While student loans have soared to over $1 trillion, with direct federal loans ballooning from $115 billion to over $700 billion in a few short years, only 37% of freshmen at four-year colleges graduate in four years (58% finally graduate in six years), and 53% of recent college graduates under the age of 25 are unemployed or doing work they could have done without going to college.

In all, from 1987 until 2011-12 —the most recent academic year for which comparable figures are available — universities and colleges collectively added 517,636 administrators and professional employees, according to the analysis by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

“There’s just a mind-boggling amount of money per student that’s being spent on administration,” said Andrew Gillen, a senior researcher at the institutes. “It raises a question of priorities.”

The ratio of nonacademic employees to faculty has also doubled. There are now two nonacademic employees at public and two and a half at private universities and colleges for every one full-time, tenure-track member of the faculty. The number of employees in central system offices has increased six-fold since 1987, and the number of administrators in them by a factor of more than 34.

I have demonstrated in my book The Nearly Free University and The Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education that the tuition for a four-year bachelor’s degree could (and should) cost $5,000, not $100,000 or $200,000. The technology and tools already exist to accredit the student, not the institution and provide distributed courses, adaptive learning and real-world, workplace-based workshops for a tiny fraction of the ineffective, unaffordable system of higher education we are currently burdened with.

Once costs decline 95%, there is no need for student loans or the bloated bureaucracies currently overseeing the parasitic student-loan system.

Once we accredit the student, not the institution, existing universities will compete directly with Nearly Free Universities not in issuing diplomas but in how much students actually learned and mastered. If students can learn as much or more for $5,000 (including workshops in real-world workplaces) than they do for $160,000 in conventional universities, then the sectors of higher education that charge $160,000 for a four-year degree will vanish.

In essence, technology has leapfrogged the existing higher education status quo.

Used by permission. Charles Hugh Smith is the author of the oftwominds.com blog, No. 7 in CNBC’s top alternative financial sites, and seven books on our economy and society, including Why Things Are Falling Apart and What We Can Do About It and The Nearly Free University and the Emerging Economy: The Revolution in Higher Education.  His work is published on a number of popular financial websites including Zero Hedge, Financial Sense, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. Here is our review of Resistance, Revolution, Liberation: A Model for Positive Change.

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