published Friday, July 6th, 2012

DeMaura: The education bubble

Stephen DeMaura

Thousands of this year’s college graduates will receive a student loan repayment bill well before an offer letter comes through. In fact, the median number of job offers a 2012 graduate will receive is zero. At the same time, the average alumnus living in Tennessee will hold $19,957 worth of student loan debt.

Gov. Bill Haslam is scheduled to take on higher education during a meeting next week with business, academic and legislative leaders. What cannot be left out of these discussions is the fact that the cost of obtaining a college degree is climbing, while outcomes — such as the attainment of career-ready skills and employment opportunities — are quickly diminishing. Without real reforms at the state level, the education bubble will burst, potentially toppling our nation’s reputation as the home of the world’s most respected and coveted higher education system.

In Tennessee, from 2000 to 2010 alone, the cost of attending college (including tuition, books, room and board and transportation) increased by nearly $10,000, rising from $14,934 to $24,309, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The 161 percent increase is significantly higher than the rate at which the median family income rose during that time.

In addition to student-paid tuition, colleges and universities receive more than $100 billion from taxpayers each year through federal subsidies.

While the financial burden is rising for students and taxpayers, the quality of an American education is waning. According to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, “Considering all four years of college ... 36 percent of students did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning.”

If we measure outcomes according to after-graduation employment, the higher-education system would receive a failing grade. Over half of all graduates under the age of 25 are unemployed or underemployed, making it difficult to fulfill their student loan repayment obligations. As a result, an entire generation of Tennesseans is being forced to postpone major life milestones, such as getting married, having children or purchasing a home, due to student loans. As with many issues, the liberal elite have become wrongly convinced that colleges and universities simply need more funding and to be shielded from public scrutiny. Conservatives, however, are coming together around a different model, one which holds colleges and universities accountable, celebrates student-focused programs and promotes outcome-based funding.

Four years ago, Texas Gov. Rick Perry began a crusade against unaccountable institutions. More specifically, the Perry administration recommended increasing the public’s ability to hold teachers and institutions of higher education accountable for results, asking universities to make results-based contracts with students to measure quality, shifting accreditation toward measures of academic outcomes, and sending a portion of state higher education subsidies directly to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of scholarships.

In a separate, but perhaps even more aggressive proposal, Perry urged Texas colleges and universities to develop a $10,000 bachelor’s degree, which could be made possible through technology that allows for interactive online classrooms.

Our education system is not failing because colleges and universities are starving for funding. There is a fundamental lack of accountability that has allowed the higher-education system to relentlessly spend taxpayer and student dollars without being forced to report results.

Texas’ proposal does not represent tweaks to the status quo, but rather a rethinking of the system as a whole. I urge Gov. Haslam and state leaders to do the same: rethink the system. Using this free-market approach as a model, we can turn Tennessee’s higher-education system around and help secure a meaningful college education for generations — without breaking the bank.

Stephen DeMaura is the president of Americans for Job Security.

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