A Bubble in the Making
The talk has been growing — especially around the blogosphere — that higher education is the next major bubble. With access to loans and all sorts of civic and cultural incentives to attend college, the actual value of a degree is inflating. Of course, education is different from housing; as far as I know, no derivatives market has grown up around the asset of knowledge (as interesting a proposition as that might be for smart individuals).
On the other hand, education affects the job market, which is what made the topic of boosting college graduation rates sound like a matter of civic urgency — as opposed, say, to industry insiders’ strategizing to expand their market — among attendees of a State Higher Education Executive Officers conference last week in Providence:
Without improvements in secondary and post-secondary education, only 21 out of every 100 Rhode Island teenagers about to enter the ninth grade will graduate from a two-year or four-year college in the next 10 years.
But research indicates that about 62 percent of entry-level positions will require at least a bachelor’s degree by the end of the decade.
What percentage of those entry-level positions actually “require” a degree because of the skills involved, rather than as a method of easy candidate screening, I won’t hazard to guess. Based on personal experience, though, I’d say it’s quite substantial. As more young adults enter the job market with degrees, more employers will require them, without reference to the ostensible value of the knowledge that they’ve gained.
Note, especially the four bulleted suggestions in the article linked above:
- Reorganizing class schedules into blocks of time that allow students to plan jobs and family responsibilities.
- Individualizing remedial work and including it in courses for credit, while limiting separate catch-up classes to the summer before the freshman year.
- Establishing uniform academic requirements from one school to another, so students may more easily build on one- and two-year programs to transfer to four-year institutions.
- Making sure that up-and-coming high school students graduate with college-ready skills.
The emphases here are twofold: getting students to where they are supposed to be at the end of high school, and making it easier for them to fit higher education into their lives. Conspicuously absent is emphasis on the regimen for ensuring that students learn something useful and relevant to their future careers, including strategies for helping them to discern what those careers should be.
Honestly, I think that might be a bit much to expect of college, because it’s a bit much to expect people straddling age twenty to figure out the next sixty years of their lives. In other words, if secondary schools can do a better job of getting students where they need to be upon high school graduation, then there is no great need for them to attend college unless (1) they can afford it, (2) their interests are broad and intellectual, and/or (3) they are driven strongly toward a particular, identifiable career. Beginning with that perspective, colleges and universities would be better able to hone their offerings.
I’d suggest that educational and economic benefits would accrue to a system that in some way expanded high school on a case-by-case basis to the duration necessary to adequately educate each individual student. When college degrees become too scarce and the differences between job candidates with and without them become too minute, employers will adjust their expectations.