Why is Higher Education so Expensive?

Tuition is Too Damn High

“We have a responsibility to ensure that every individual has the opportunity to receive a high-quality education, from prekindergarten to elementary and secondary, to special education, to technical and higher education and beyond.” ~Jim Jeffords

Higher Education has become quite the flash point in recent years. Students of all stripes (myself included) have been subject to constant increases in the cost of their college education. Of course, they could always decide to skip college and just enter the workforce, thus saving tens of thousands of dollars. Oh wait, never mind, they really can’t. As the cost of higher education has continued to rise, it has only become more of a necessity. Don’t believe me?  Ask all those insurance agents if a bachelor’s degree was really necessary to do the work they do.  Or the companies who need employees trained in highly specialized fields like computer science if they’ll hire someone straight out of high school. Though the more important question is how did we get here?

Problem 1: State Higher Education funding has not matched the need nor the demand of this generation. While funding for education has generally risen for higher ed over the past decade, it has not come close to meeting demand. In fact, most public state institutions have actually seen funding decrease dramatically in relation to the amount the student pays in tuition. In Minnesota, this has accounted for a state college and university system that once was two-thirds state funding, one-third tuition to shift to the opposite ratio. As we continue to see more students pursuing a higher-education, the lack of legislative will to match that increase with a proportionate amount of funding is placing the financial burden solely on the back of the students.

Problem 2: Educating a student simply costs more. One thing I never understood about Star Wars, was how they afforded to build those technological marvels like the Death Star and lightsaber. It couldn’t have been cheap.  Similarly, as the world makes rapid technological advances, the education required to utilize that technology in the work force increases as well. In order to stay on the cutting edge, college and universities must invest thousands of dollars into the latest teaching tools. Whether this is a state-of-the-art science lab or an effective Learning Management System the cost of education increases with every new innovation. Unfortunately, that cost gets passed on directly to the student in the form of increased fees and tuition.

Problem 3: Companies that use to train their employees, now rely on the higher education institutions to do it for them. There was a time when you could get an entry-level job doing something as simple as working in a mail room. From there you could work your way up with the help of in-house training. In many ways, those days are behind us. Instead, employers expect you to attend college for a very specific field, get the requisite experience through what is many times an unpaid internship, and then fill a very specific need. This  has forced anyone who would like a well-paying, stable job to first invest a great deal of resources in a college education. This of course leads to further financial stress on the colleges and universities around the country. Well at least until we can upload information directly into our brains ala The Matrix.

Getting a higher education degree is unlikely going to get cheaper in the near future thanks to the combination of the increasing cost to educate students, a lack of state funding, and the simple reality corporations expect more out of higher education. However, there are things we as a society can do to reverse the trend before the costs begin to affect our ability to maintain a competitive workforce. First, we can begin  to prioritize higher-education funding as a priority when we head to the ballot box by supporting politicians who are serious about addressing the issue. Secondly, we can encourage the use of cheaper technological solutions to old problems (e.g. open source textbooks) to reduce the cost of educating our college students. Lastly, while its unlikely businesses will return to an era where they trained their employees from the bottom to the top, we can encourage partnerships between the private sector and the colleges and universities in order to find creative solutions to drive down the cost of higher education. Or we can always just assign everyone a career chip and cut out the middle man.


Door Number One: A Career that Inspires

” Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it.” ~Buddha

Its been awhile since I introduced the grand concept of the 50 doors. The idea that the key to happiness lies in fulfilling a number of unique, but equally important needs. Rather than allow this idea to be regulated to the hall of blog posts past, I will be exploring these doors, and delving deeper in why they are important and what one should consider one they step through threshold.

As most of us probably spend a disproportionate amount of time in our lives working towards a career we might as well start there. As necessary as being employed is to our existence, it not only makes sense that work should be a main focus in our lives, but that we should constantly be striving to find the job that give us the most satisfaction. Since we are still a couple of years away from the development of the Lightsaber and the rise of Jedi Knight as a credible profession it may not always be clear what we should be doing to get the most out of this facet of our lives. Fortunately, there are a number of steps one can take to help make the process easier.

Pursue some type of post secondary education. While there are many who would question whether we should all attend college, I would argue this is the most important step one can take in better understanding the career they should pursue. This does not mean we all need to immediately go out and take on massive loads of debt in order to stumble through a college program, hoping we will one day find what it is we should spend our lives doing. However, simple steps like taking a course at a community college, or doing some internet research on available college and job training programs may be just what we need to light the spark of inspiration that allows us to find our way out of the doldrums of job uncertainty.

Take an inventory of what hobbies and activities in your life that are most satisfying. Like to fix things around the house? Maybe looking into become a mechanic or an engineer. Really enjoy writing? There are multiple professions in need of a competent, passionate writer. Like to spend a lot of time in the woods? Maybe look into the wildlife and resource management field. The point is, sometimes the key to success in our working lives lies in finding a way to get paid for doing something we would gladly do for free. While this does not always work, (I’m still waiting on that professional nap taker job opening) at least considering the many things we do in our lives when we are not at work and how they could be turned into a career is a good step towards finding the job that will inspire us to get out of bed each morning.

Volunteer for things that pique your interest. Sometimes the best thing we can do, when we’re not certain the direction our professional life should take is to find volunteer opportunities with causes and issues we believe in. It not only allows us to get a taste for the type of work done in these areas, but enables one to gauge their interest in particular areas without committing no more than the time we are willing to donate. Furthermore, if we decide we would like a career working with a particular cause or issue, volunteering gives us an inside track to learning where the jobs are and who is best to contact as we move forward. At the very least it provides a couple of good experiences for a resume.

A good education, pursuing what we love, and testing the waters via volunteering are excellent stepping-stones to landing a dream career. Once we determine what it is we want to do with our lives, its important to take whatever steps necessary to make the possibility a reality. Also, it is never too late to make a course correction. While it may make life more difficult to change things up, remaining at an undesired job can have ramifications for every element of one’s life. In either case, whether it be beginning that first career or changing course midstream the most important thing one can do is taking that first step.

Political Popularity: The Perils of Democracy

“Voters quickly forget what a man says.” ~ Richard Nixon

With all the talk of voter identification and the perils it poses to the voting rights of so many people, we often forget many political contests boil down to glorified popularity contests. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely not the case for every voter. There are those who vote based on a careful analysis of the issues. However, we often hear of people who support candidates because of a feeling in their “gut” or because the candidate is someone they could have a beer with. This type of mentality many times leads to situations where the person best suited for the job ends up losing out to a less qualified, but more likable opponent. While its important to be aware of the troubles such a trend can cause, it is equally vital we understand the reason this phenomenon occurs.

Becoming an informed voter is hard. Every race: from the local city council to the president election involves a number of complex issues the average person can’t hope to be an expert in. An entire lifetime could be spent on the study of just one of the many issues our elected officials influence. Furthermore, getting credible information on a topic is nigh impossible with the amount of spin floating around the airwaves, leaving us with the views of the candidates and their assessment of policy as our main sources of information. Which would not be a problem, except in most cases the two people running for office have diametrically opposed views on how things should be done. Which is why we have elections in the first place. All this information floating around in the air makes it extremely hard to do the necessary research to properly vet a candidate, thus causing many of us to fall back on how they makes us feel rather than whether they are best prepared to do the job. Which brings us to the next point…

Voters are emotional creatures. As I mentioned in a previous post, a great deal of emotion goes into our decision-making. Whether we like it or not, it affects every aspect of our life. So it should come at no surprise, that when we are at the ballot box many of us follow our hearts rather than our minds. Voting this way often causes us to pass over the logical fit for the position based solely on factors like likability and whether or not we trust the person. While not completely unimportant, when it comes to choosing our elected officials, other elements like their expertise on the issues and whether they have a plan for making the changes needed should probably take precedence. At least that’s how I feel anyways.

The popular vote is about one thing, popularity. There is a reason most companies do not hold elections for the positions they need to hire. At their core, they are about representing what the majority of people like. Whether it be favorable stances on issues or the person themselves, voting is about choosing preferences. While it would be ideal if desire and merit lined up every time, it’s just not the case. From birth until the day we die, we are put in situations where we are asked to choose an ideal circumstance or object. Sometimes we do the right thing, and choose things like exercise and healthy diets over ice cream and naps on the couch, even though we would probably prefer the latter. However, much of the time we make decisions based on what feels the best on an individual level. Making it no surprise that when it comes to electing our representatives we are drawn to the one we could see ourselves befriending.

What does this say about our political system? Is it broken?  Should we abolish our democracy immediately and establish the “First Galactic Empire?” Probably not (besides we all know how that story ends). Instead, we should focus on being as informed on the issues as our schedules and lives will allow. Pushing for enhanced educational opportunities for all citizens of this country so they are better equipped to assess the candidates who are vying to represent them. We must check our emotional response with this informed, logical decision-making. Lastly, we must be willing to sacrifice instant gratification for representatives and policies that are in the best interest of the greater good.  After all, as Teddy Roosevelt once said,  “A vote is like a rifle; its usefulness depends upon the character of the user.”

The Challenges of Equality

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. ~ Martin Luther King Jr.

In light of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, it seems worthwhile to reflect on the nature of equality. King himself dedicated his life to the cause of civil rights for all. His, along with the many others’, leadership has enabled this country to reach a place where an African American can be elected to the highest office in the land during an election where one of his main competitor’s for the presidency was a woman. Something unheard of during King’s time. However, while we have come a long way in achieving justice and equality in this country, there are still many areas where it’s pursuit has either stagnated or gotten worse. It is important we not only recognize these areas, but understand why they persist.

Income inequality is becoming increasingly more prevalent in this country. As has been mentioned previously, one of the reason for this is, rather than take on the tax burden to help move this country forward economically, the monied interests at the top spend ample resources ensuring their tax rates not only remain static, but in some cases decrease thanks to loopholes and deductions unavailable to the average American. In addition, the United States has controlled a disproportionate amount of the world’s wealth for most of recent history (somewhere between %25-%30). As the rest of the developing world begins to catch up with the United States, it is inevitable the amount of wealth they control will also increase, with the U.S.’s share decreasing. However, so far many in the richest 1% have become protectionist with their money leaving this burden on the middle class. This income disparity can not continue if we are to meet the economic challenges of the coming century.

Educational attainment and opportunity still remains an area of shocking inequality. The disparity between rich and poor neighborhoods, minority and white students, affluent and impoverished students is an enormous problem. The issue can be traced back to a variety of factors from the property tax funding system of public education to the effects poverty has on a child’s ability to focus during their formative years of education. There have been a number of initiatives sponsored in an attempt to address this issue, not the least of which being the controversial and arguably unsuccessful No Child Left Behind Act that, amongst other things, attempted to improve the standardized test scores of students seen as “falling behind.” This is inexorably tied to the aforementioned issue of unequal income in this country, and it is vital this issue be addressed if we are to move forward as a country.

Racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality continues to remain an area in need of improvement. There is still a great deal of inequality when it comes to gender, race, and sexual orientation in this country. Women still make less than their male counterparts doing the same work. In many states, same-sex couples are still being prevented from marrying and receiving the legal benefits their opposite-sex counterparts enjoy. In everything from quality of education to income there continues to be a vast chasm between racial minorities in America and the majority Caucasian class. While we have made progress, it is important we recognize these discrepancies exist and continue to work towards building a more united, equal society.

In the face of all this inequality it is easy to get discouraged. With so much work needing to be done in the areas of civil rights, educational opportunities, and income distribution it is easy to get discouraged. However, a great deal has been accomplished by leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Hubert H. Humphrey in the face of greater opposition than faced today. We must continue to recognize, while there are differences separating us, our values and desires for a prosperous future ultimately unite us.

Mortgaging the Future

“When you get in debt you become a slave” -Andrew Jackson

Recently student loan debt has reached $1 trillion. This is an unfathomable amount of money to saddle the future of this country with. This is more than all of the credit card debt in the country. Except with credit card debt, if things get too bad, you can just file for bankruptcy and it will go away. Meanwhile, with student loan debt even bankruptcy will not free you from shackles of student loans. This is simply inexcusable. We consistently emphasize the importance of higher education in rebuilding our economy, but then create policies that continue to drive its price  to a level well beyond anything that can be afforded without taking on massive debt. This is detrimental to our future and cannot be allowed to continue for a number of reasons.

The threat of debt makes higher education inaccessible for many. A recent Georgetown study, indicated that 70 percent of jobs will require some sort of post-secondary education. Sadly, many of those needed workers are being discouraged from pursuing a higher education in favor of remaining debt-free. Furthermore, every step up the educational ladder raises the risk and debt these students will face. When achieving one’s full potential to contribute to the economy is measured not by ability but how behind one is willing to get financially, it does not bode well for the development of society.

Debt saddled college graduates are limited in their ability to contribute to the economy. If I had managed to graduate college debt-free, there are a lot of things I would have done with the money currently going to paying back student loans. Most of which, would probably involve buying more goods. It’s no wonder we are facing a housing crisis in this country. When a large percentage of the next generation of workers are dumping money into paying off their education, there is a little left for purchases like a home or even a car in many cases. Ideally, we would live in an economy where the purchasing power of the populace was not so vital to prosperity.  However, until that day arrives, having a bunch of recent college graduates with money to directly inject into the economy is an excellent thing.

Debt discourages experimentation and innovation. Peter Thiel, cofounder of Paypal recently offered twenty individuals under the age of twenty,  $100,000 to forgo college in favor of starting a business. Most people are not faced with such a drastic choice as this. However, when one leaves college plagued by debt, taking the risks needed to stimulate the economy is not the most appealing proposition. Instead of pursuing further education, or taking out a business loan to start the next fortune 500 company, many college graduates are struggling just to find a job. Leading many to either settle for a low-skilled job that helps pay the bills, or in many cases, being forced to move in with parents or other family members while continuing a seemingly fruitless job search. This lack of success, damages the confidence of many, further reducing the willingness to take the chances needed to stimulate the economy.

The increase in student debt shows little signs of slowing. In fact, as governments attempt to balance the budget on the backs of students, both through decreased funding for public higher education, and reductions in state and federal grant programs, it only seems to be getting worse. However, this does not need to continue. Rededicating ourselves to preparing the future workforce of this country through investment in our higher education institutions and the grant programs that allow students to afford the educations they provide can reverse this trend. This will require courageous leadership and sacrifice from the elite minority that controls the money and power in this country. Or maybe we should just let the market solve the problem. That always seems to work…

Education: The Key to the Future

“Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.” -George Washington Carver

An educated populace is an importance facet of any fully functioning society. As we move forward into the future it is vital we continue to invest in this key area. Sadly, a great deal of the rhetoric surrounding the public discourse focuses on shrinking the size of our government at all costs. When the focus is on the creation of tax breaks and cutting our way to the future, many times education is the first to suffer. This disturbing trend cannot be allowed to continue for a number of reasons.

In order to adapt and remain competitive as an economy, education must play an even greater role than it has in the past. According to a recent Georgetown study, 63 percent of jobs in America will require some sort of college education. That means almost two-thirds of those expecting to have job in the future will not only need to receive a high-quality K-12 experience, but will also need to achieve success in their post-secondary learning. This is number is even more telling when you consider the number of unemployed individuals with a high school diploma is almost twice that of those with some form of college education. Simply put, we are moving towards a world where increased education will be vital to remain competitive in the job market.

The innovations need to deal with the world’s next set of challenges will come from the educated. Creating a sustainable energy grid, updating our infrastructure, and adapting to a world where we may have to do more with less will require a vast store of knowledge. From the scientists who develop these technologies to the elected officials who create the laws needed to pave the way forward, all will require a large amount of training and education. While this might seem like common sense, the policies we have enacted seem to say otherwise. Cutting low interest loans for graduate students does not encourage the continued specialization in the fields that will be needed, nor does borrowing money from K-12 school districts with no guaranteed way to pay it back. The innovations of tomorrow must be funded today at every level.

We must have the open mind education provides to find the common ground needed. The greatest problem inherent in our current policy discussion is the rigidity of both sides. This inability to accept  their way of doing things may not be the best course of action has become increasingly detrimental. While education does not guarantee this trend would reverse, it gives us the ability to question the validity of ideas and avoid the ignorance we all suffer from at one time or another. The more we are exposed to viewpoints and situations we are not accustomed to, the more able we are to assess why it is we believe the way we do and whether it may be wise to take another look. While not the panacea to all things divisive, education has the potential to overcome stubborn, short-sighted opposition in ways not possible in its absence.

No matter what methods we use to prepare for tomorrow, one thing is certain: education is key. Preparing our workforce for the ever-changing dynamics of a world economy requires it. Developing the technologies needed to address the world’s most pressing issues can not happen without it. Finding a way to overcome our differences and finding consensus is simply unrealistic in a world where it is not a priority. We can not sit back and allow partisan bickering and stubborn ideological goals to deprive of us of what makes us great. We must invest in the education system today, so our emerging leaders will have the skills they need tomorrow.