What is the purpose of higher education and does it still make sense?

What is the purpose of a higher education?  More importantly, does it still make sense in today’s world?

Cumulative student loans are now, at more than $1 Trillion, larger than either credit card debt or automobile loans.  Students taking on such debt are responsible for it – period – as are all those who cosign for them, even retirees on fixed incomesIf you owe it, they will come.  Yet despite this, higher education is still billed as the key necessity for entry to that promised land, the American Middle Class; the statistics are that those with the degree typically outearn those without it.   But as the youngsters continue to take on debt and find themselves with minimal employment prospects to support the debtload, it’s helpful for the parents – who sure as hell should be having input into the decision – to be clear as to why this happening.  What is the purpose of a higher education and does it make sense for my child? 

Our nation has had a love affair with higher education, even if most of its earlier citizens could never afford to attend.  The great Land Grant universities of the latter 19th century – Auburn, UCal/Berkeley, Rutgers, and more than 140 other well-known universities – were established under the auspices of congressional action to provide research and education in improved agricultural techniques and ensure that decent education was available to the general public; it was believed that any person would be able to better him or herself accordingly, and also become better citizens in the process.  While the majority of the populace didn’t attend these institutions, their existence did increase the availability of education to the masses and sent an important message about our national values throughout the rest of the world.  Just as the establishment of the land grant universities opened the educational gates, the passage of the GI Bill in the late 1940s opened them further with the message that higher education was of value; we’d reward our veterans for their service with education to help them move on with their lives and care for their families.  Education matters because an educated citizen is engaged, productive and less likely to be dependent upon the state in the long-term.

Has that changed for any reason in the past twenty five years?

No.  It’s especially even more important today as more Americans are dependent upon the Federal government for Food Stamps and Disability Income, both of which are at all time high levels.  But these programs are fiscal outlays and their existence means that not only is there an outlay, but there’s damned little chance that the user is going to be paying taxes back to the government. 

The big difference now is that there’s a chasm between our words and sensibilities, and the reality of our policy actions.  As costs have risen far above even medical care costs, Catherine Rampell of the NY Times is correct that a significant portion of the cost has been shifted from the public to the individual family and student by dint of state budget cutbacks through the past twenty years.  According to the national group, the State Higher Education Executive Officers, the average state budget’s contribution per Full Time Enrollment dropped in 2010 to a level last seen in 1980, adjusted to constant dollars for inflation.  The Reagan Revolution coincided with the move to the "knowledge based economy" so that when there was an increased need for higher education, we began to push the full financial demands onto the family and the youth; we forgot that government does exist to help provide certain functions for society and the nation.

It still makes sense to pursue higher education, but not in the manner that of the Boomer generation.  The presence of a sheepskin isn’t an automatic guarantee of success but the educational bar has been permanently raised so that it’s more necessary than ever so greater care must be taken to craft a plan that meets the need at the minimum cost and with the minimum debt.  Parents have to truly begin paying attention to the issue and take a greater role in helping their kids determine their best route; it’s irritating to read about college graduates who complain that they’ve come out with a degree in Art History and $100,000 in debt.  Either they simply chose to ignore what was said or the parents had simply checked out, thinking that after high school, they were officially adults and now officially left to their own devices.

The phrase making sense is now qualified and no longer a blanket phrase.  We have to once again focus our attention on the kids as we did when they were much younger and required greater effort.  What are their interests and skill sets?  What is their maturity level and should they spend a few more years at home now in order to avoid having to boomerang later?  What plan works best for them?  They should answer these questions, but it’s up to us to ask the questions in the first place.  Only when we’ve gone to the effort and through the process will we know if a higher education makes sense.

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