published Sunday, October 6th, 2013

Kennedy: Is college really worth it anymore?

Is college worth it?

The cover of Time magazine last week pictured three adorable first-graders in caps and gowns, along with the headline: "Class of 2025: How they'll learn and what they'll pay."

My younger son is part of the Class of 2025, so the magazine set me to thinking about college. Parents, I believe, have begun to ask the question "Is it worth it?" without irony.

In the last couple of months, the presidents of three state university campuses, representing about 63,000 students, have visited the Times Free Press to talk with reporters and editors. One thing is clear: They all know that their schools -- the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Middle Tennessee State University -- are under a microscope, just like all the state's institutions of higher learning. Gov. Bill Haslam's ambitious new push to eventually have 55 percent of Tennesseans earn a post-secondary degree or certificate has gotten their attention.

Some of the facts and anecdotes from the presidents are still ringing in my ears.

• Only 5 percent of college students requiring remediation at UT will ever graduate with a degree, according to UT System President Joe DiPietro.

• The median family income of students at UT is over $100,000, raising the question: Is college at the state's flagship campus even affordable to the lower rungs of the middle class?

• The president of MTSU, Sidney McPhee, said he is tired of seeing graduates of one popular major at MTSU -- recording industry management -- working as waiters around Murfreesboro, where the school is located.

There's a sense of urgency and self-analysis going on in higher education today that I haven't seen before. University leaders are beginning to take a serious look at outcomes: How many graduates get jobs in their fields, and what do they earn? There is even talk of testing recent college graduates to see just how much they have learned.

Chattanooga native Jon Meacham boiled it down brilliantly in his Time magazine cover story about tomorrow's college students, who will be expected to have real skills to compete in the global martketplace. The question, Meacham posits, is not just "What should every college student know?" but "What should every college student know how to do?"

College as vocational school is still unpalatable to some, but that's the new imperative.

The Meacham article points out that a staggering "36 percent of college graduates in a 2011 study ... did not show any significant cognitive gains over four years."

Not any?

How many people would wager $50,000 to $100,000 for a bachelor's degree if it was common knowledge that one in three will come away learning nearly nothing?

As often happens when I'm trying to think through a complicated topic, I consulted my 6-year-old son. The first-grade mind is adept at stripping an issue to its essence.

"So where do you want to go to college?" I asked as we made a father-son trip to Walmart last Sunday.

"Um, either Mexico or England," he said. "I haven't decided."

"OK. And why do people go to college anyway?" I asked.

"So they can have a job they like," he answered. "Like, I want to be a road-paver person, so I want to go to college for that."

"And how much do you think four years of college cost?" I asked.

He thought for about five seconds and said, "Maybe $30,000?"

"Well, probably closer to $60,000," I said, "but you're in the ballpark."

I felt a rush of pride. He had demonstrated some basic math skills, a nice global world view and picked a career that can't be outsourced.

I'd say first grade has led to some significant cognitive gains here.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST, or subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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