The economy is in flux and new technology changes the way we live at a faster pace every day. Some college students are re-evaluating their commitment to a college degree and the ways they’d like to achieve it – if they are interested in completing it at all. Being linked by the Internet and social media has drawn us closer together, but it also has created upheaval in the way we think about our career paths, and how best to walk them. We are in an era of tremendous possibilities, but sometimes so many choices can be stressful or confusing.
The Cost of Higher Education
Although there are more majors and programs of study available than ever before, the cost of college is also higher than it has ever been. In 2017-2018, the average cost of two semesters at an in-state public college was over $25,000. If you think that’s high, attending a private school can amount to even more – anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000. And that’s just for tuition and student fees; it does not include housing, campus meal plans, supplies, activity dues, and transportation to and from campus. Students who undertake specialized programs that involve specialized skill acquisition, such as flight training, can rack up student loans in the six figures. According to a July 2018 survey by Cengage, students find paying for certain aspects of college life (like books) more stressful than coming up with funds for food or rent.
How did this happen?
The root of the problem lies in good intentions. Most children born in the 1970s and beyond were intensely encouraged to shun the trades and enter college, assured that college graduates tend to make more money than those who don’t. Societal pressure has also driven parents to guide their children to view their late teenage years as preparation for college, so that they will have had a successful high school career.
Most baby boomers either paid their own way through school, and back then online college wasn’t an option. They were eager to ease their children through the application and matriculation process. Given expectations from media, peers, teachers, and many employers, generations have grown up assuming they will go to college. They were taught that they cannot improve their financial situation without a degree.
Why Is College So Expensive?
The ultimate culprit for continuously rising college costs is, once again, good intentions. The Middle Income Student Assistance Act sought to assist the middle class in paying for a college education. Wealthy students could afford tuition outright, and poor students were eligible for scholarships (which middle class students were not). The 1978 legislation allowed students of any income level to apply for Pell Grants; which unlike student loans, do not have to be repaid.
Sounds good, right? The problem, however, was that colleges, well aware that tuition was now assured to hundreds of thousands of new undergraduates, raised tuition. This in turn led to pleas for increased grant funding – which led to more tuition hikes. The same cycle is taking place with relatively easy-to-get student loans.
Since a college degree is considered mandatory for entry to at least a middle-class lifestyle, those who are the gatekeepers of the degrees can set the price of admission. As long as a college degree is considered the only path to financial stability, that price will remain high.
Grade Inflation: What Is a Degree Worth?
Even though the cost of completing a college education is at its highest in recorded history, the fact that it’s now much easier to gain admission into college, along with the multiplying options students have to complete a degree, means that the degree itself is worth less.
Competition for students amongst sub-Ivy schools means that higher education is now in an era of “student as consumer.” Instructors are now under pressure to focus on student retention rather than classroom instruction, which, along with other factors, has resulted in grade inflation.
Grade inflation means that an A in 1963 doesn’t mean what an A does in 2019. A major impetus of this was the social upheaval connected with the Vietnam War, when some professors and students began to revolt against standard methods of evaluation and grading. Some colleges even today do not assign any grades at all.
In addition, many instructors disagreed with the Vietnam-era draft, and, eager to protect their students who were exempt from it, artificially inflated grades to help young men maintain their non-draftee status. Today, pressure continues for instructors to “assist” students in keeping scholarships to ward off immense tuition costs and student loans.
Since the Vietnam Era, the average amount of A grades at the college level—which in turn has filtered down to high schools—has shot up. Average college GPAs continue to rise incrementally, and, by 2013, the average GPA was a 3.15. At the same time, 45% of all letter grades at the college level were A’s. By mathematical standards, this many students performing this well is an impossibility.
If high grades come on the cheap, then, college students face an identity crisis: What does this diploma mean?
Changing Goals & Perceptions
It seems that the Western social agreement on the value of a college education his reached a tipping point. New graduates are entering the workforce with tremendous debt and not many ways to pay for it. The exploding costs of college, the multiplication of degrees that aren’t necessarily applicable to a high-earning job, and the lowered sense of accomplishment that comes with completing a diploma has led to a sense of college backlash.
Consider the rising popularity of such programs as the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which encourages students to forgo traditional college for the skilled trades. Such programs offer scholarships to students to not attend college, but trade schools, vocational programs, or apprenticeships to become qualified for jobs in welding, woodworking, plumbing, and electrical work. These programs not only offer alternate paths to high-earning jobs, they can also help to address a widening skills gap for these always-necessary positions.