America's College Education Problem (Blog)

Ann McClure's picture
Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Today’s Washington Post has two troubling stories that touch on the future of American competitiveness. One story covers a new Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) report showing that the United States is falling in the global ranking of young adults who finish college. The other story is that defaults on federal student loans have jumped.

According to the OECD report, the United States has fallen from twelfth to sixteenth since 1995 in the percentage of adults age 25 to 34 holding college degrees. This happened despite the fact that successive presidents, most recently President Obama, have vowed to put the United States back on top of the world’s higher education rankings.

As the Post story points out, the OECD’s ranking are somewhat misleading. American higher education is built around the four-year bachelor’s degree. Many other countries stress shorter one- or two-year professional degrees. But that raises another important question, is America’s traditional four-year approach the right one? Are most students well served by this model? As much as I would like to give a definitive yes - I have taught at two major research universities - I’m not so sure.

One reason is that the cost of a college education in the United States has skyrocketed. I hadn’t followed college costs closely until my kids became teenagers. Now my oldest child attends the University of Virginia, and all I can say is, wow! UVA estimates that the total cost for an in-state undergraduate to walk the grounds in Charlottesville this year is $24,104. And that’s a pretty good deal. My alma mater, the University of Michigan, puts the total bill this year for out-of-state undergraduates at $50,352. Bates College, ranked in 2010 as the most expensive private four-year institution, charges $55,300.

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