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Professor says higher education in US at tipping point

Students celebrate graduation day at Harvard Business School.
Students celebrate graduation day at Harvard Business School.
Photo by Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

The days in America when children grow up with the assumption that practically all students will go to college may be quickly coming to an end. That is the assessment given by Glenn Reynolds, Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Tennessee. Reynolds wrote a book which was published in hardback earlier this year titled, "The New School: How the Information Age will Save American Education from Itself."

Reynolds is convinced that the current system of higher education in the United States is imploding under the weight of dozens if not hundreds of alternative choices that do a much better job at preparing students for the workforce and cost only a fraction of what universities charge their students for degrees that may do nothing more than build a bridge to nowhere.

The fact that America now faces such a tipping point is illustrated, says Reynolds, by the skyrocketing costs of getting a university degree. And getting a student loan for most or all of it is not helping. College costs so much these days that the typical student will amass a debt load in college loans that they will spend the rest of their lives trying to pay off.

For example, it is not unusual for a student to graduate from college owing at least $150,000 dollars in student loans. And given that everybody nowadays seems to expect a college degree from job seekers means that most of these debt ridden students will not make enough money to reasonably expect to pay off the loans until they are almost at retirement age, or older.

Is college as we know it worth that kind of money for most people? Probably not, says Reynolds. College degrees are not cost effective and those degrees may not help graduates at all in obtaining a job or establishing a lucrative career.

A much better alternative is to nix college as a possibility. After that, a more reasonable choice for some students is a technical school or community college where marketable skills are learned that will result in well paying jobs within two years. Others will find that taking college courses online, which lead to an accredited four year degree or more, is a much more prudent course of action. Costs are amazingly low compared to the traditional classroom setting of a traditional college campus.

Reynolds says that these choices and others were not necessarily by design but by necessity. The information age has forced traditional colleges to offer some of their four year and Master's degrees online. Why? Because much of the information is already out there to be utilized without a degree at all. But when colleges organize this information into formalized degrees that can be obtained online, the students are happier because it is much more convenient and affordable, and the colleges can help themselves by staying afloat financially. In time, according to Reynolds, colleges will be forced to shave off the top heavy layers of administrative costs that are driving the enormously high and unreasonable costs of a traditional four year degree.

This has been needed for decades. Had the colleges been smart enough to see coming trends, they could have taken steps to prepare for it and lowered administrative costs. But now the situation has become so dire that they are forced into it. Many students, and their parents, have come to the conclusion that the costs of a traditional degree outweigh any possible benefit. And herein is the tipping point. Reynolds predicts that many smaller four year liberal arts colleges will go under within ten years due to the mass exodus that is to occur. The largest and richest of the universities will be hurt as well, but the fact that these institutions are well set with endowments will insure that they survive the coming changes.

Americans are going to need to stop with the mantra that every student needs to go to college. And we must also get over our misperception that the costs of college are well worth it and that we must be wary of alternative approaches to higher education.

The tipping point is already here. Look for massive changes over the next decade in higher education. And also note that even public secondary schools are making preparation for the change. Many states offer homeschooling by the state educational system, enabling students to bypass "attending school" altogether.

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My personal blog, The Liberty Sphere.

My popular series titled, Musings After Midnight.

My ministry site, Martin Christian Ministries.