September brings with it first semesters at universities and colleges across North America. By early November – now – students are beginning to focus on their end-of-semester exams.
North America is facing an education crisis.
Once one of the most advanced education systems in the world, with the output to match, North America is falling behind the rest of the world in terms of educating its population. We are not increasing the number of students that are graduating with college and university degrees and are thus lacking all the advantages that an advanced education brings.
Post-secondary education is increasingly becoming something to which only a privileged group has access. For some time now it has been the domain of those able to afford it or those willing (or able) to assume a crippling debt starting off in their adult life. A rare few get through on earned scholarships, but higher education is becoming less and less accessible to a large portion of the population – specifically, the portion that could benefit the most from having such an education.
North Americans have the view that post-secondary education is a privilege. That thinking is antiquated, a throwback to our simpler roots, where a grade-school education sufficiently prepared you for life, as children traditionally took the businesses and occupations of their parents. Societal development moved at a snail’s pace compared to today’s rate of change. That thinking has to change, as those times are long-gone.
One of the most prohibitive factors behind limiting education today is the cost.
With universities funding models ever-changing, more and more of the cost of their education is falling on students in the form of tuition, fees, and other charges. More than ever before, students are graduating with crushing debt. It’s no secret, and it is preventing a lot of students from ever attempting post-secondary education in the first place. Most universities are finding it difficult to retain students beyond their first year of enrollment, with drop out rates of 16%-25% depending on the institution. This is for several reasons, but most commonly universities find that students give cost as the biggest factor as to why they did not return for second year. It is rare that a student that drops out of second year ever returns to complete his or her education. This puts the student in an even worse situation where they are carrying a student debt, without the advantage of the education that will give them a good paying job in order to repay that debt.
In America, nearly 20,000,000 students are attending a university or college. 60% of those students are attending their school with the assistance of a loan. The Consumer Finance Protection Bureau reports that there is almost $1 trillion in total outstanding student loan debt in the United States today, and that that is shared among approximately 37,000,000 student loan borrowers with outstanding student loans today. In 2011, a student graduated with an average debt load of $26,600, a 5% increase from the year before. This student debt is unbearable, described as “crisis level” as student loan defaults are at their highest rate in two decades, with almost 22% of borrowers defaulting after three years.. This is not efficient. This has to change.
The costs of textbooks are absolutely obscene. The prices are artificially inflated to begin with, and the publishers produce a new edition of the text book every year, creating an artificial need for the latest edition. I say it’s an artificial need, because while a few subjects like computing science change quickly, making new editions of those texts are practically unavoidable, often the publisher will make only minor changes to a textbook from year to year, such as changing the order of chapters, making minor edits, or even simply repaginating the whole text. Universities are telling their students to budget more than $1000 for each year’s textbooks. If you’re in an engineering program, expect to spend $1500.
The prohibitive costs tend to create a new caste system of wealth that sees the children of working-class families destined to stay in the working class unless they receive some sort of exceptional assistance, make some sort of exceptional effort, or take some sort of exceptional risk.
So how do we fix the costs?
Let’s look at the textbooks first. When eBooks were introduced, they held the promise of affordably increasing the accessibility of books to the general public. So far, the eBook prices for the same textbooks have kept pace with the hard copy versions. The costs of textbooks are often justified as the cost of physically producing these books – editing, printing, warehousing, distributing, displaying, selling, it all adds to the cost of any book. The same cannot be said of eBooks. If textbook prices are obscene, the prices of the eBook versions are simply criminal, because the cost cannot be similarly justified. This needs to change. It’s high time the eBooks lived up to their potential of cost-savings and accessibility. The publishers have no incentive to do it on their own, change will only happen if the consumer demands it. The recording industry is surviving the iTunes Apocalypse just fine by changing their business model, the publishing industry needs to follow suit.
Then there’s the cash vortex that is on-campus life. Feeling hungry between classes? Chances are that all of the food services on your university’s campus have been contracted out, often with exclusivity clauses in the contract. Everything from the coffee shop to the food court to the little convenience store is monopolized by one food service contractor. Most universities’ student body is the size of a town. Imagine telling everyone in that town that all food is to be prepared and sold by one restaurant, and one restaurant only. That needs to change.
Then there’s the big problem, tuition. The nation needs to re-prioritize its discretionary spending. The United States spends 58% of its budget on the Military (in terms of total dollars, more than the next 13 nations – China, Russia, UK, France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, and Canada – combined), and only 4% on Education and that includes ALL educational spending, from kindergarten through post-doctorate grants. I think Kofi Annan said it best when he said, “Education is, quite simply, peace-building by another name. It is the most effective form of defense spending there is.“
A responsible government views investing in postsecondary education as an investment in the future. Governments invest in two ways. One is by providing student loans and the other is by providing research grants. The research grants can pay off fairly quickly if the research produces lucrative results. The student loans pay off over a longer term once a student successfully graduates, is able to earn a better salary because of it, and therefore returns more money to the government in the form of taxes. Even with the current rate of default on student debt, the return on investments to governments are significant.
Some governments rightly view post-secondary education as an investment in their country/province/state’s future. Around the world many countries are offering post-secondary education free of charge. So why can’t we in North America? It’s a simple lack of will that has to be driven by a change in mind-set. A fundamental cultural shift. No small task.
Universities do two things extremely well. One is educate, the other is research.
Delivering education costs the universities and colleges a fair amount of money. Providing classroom technology, the classrooms themselves, the faculty to teach in those classrooms, and all of the staff and assistance to go along with it is a very costly proposition. Managing the physical resources behind fluctuating class sizes and the requirements of those classes is a very costly challenge for every institution and university budgets are largely dedicated to providing services around education. Universities will often make these costs back in what they charge in tuition and fees. The classroom model is no longer the most efficient and effective way of delivering education. This is old thinking. This has to change.
Education is no longer the exclusive domain of universities and colleges. Online resources and other private schools are doing the job just as well. Some resources like Khan Academy are offering many courses free of charge. Some of the major universities are recognizing the value of the Khan model and are presenting some of their courses and lectures online for free. Berkely, Yale, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and more offer these “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Course). That’s a start.
The other thing universities do well is research. Whenever you hear of some new breakthrough, new discovery, or new technology it always comes from a University’s research lab. Both the government and the corporate world are interested in funding research. For the government, it can advance the country as a whole, and for corporations it can advance their bottom line. The relationship that exists between corporations and the government and universities is a robust and productive one. That should be maintained and it should be fostered into even more advanced research. Allow the universities to focus on that as their raison d’être. Turn universities into centers for research and you will see not only education advance, but the results of that research will grow exponentially as well.
Universities aren’t the only way of gaining knowledge. There needs to be an increased emphasis on recognizing the value of experience gained in the workplace. A standardized means whereby knowledge gained in the workplace can be assessed for academic credit needs to be developed and implemented.
Why does this have to change? The world is more competitive now than ever before. It is no longer acceptable to simply “tune in and drop out”. Knowledge is essential to personal advancement, equality, and freedom. Education is how one gets that knowledge. Education should not be commoditized. Education should never be a privilege, at any level. Again, I’ll refer to the words of Kofi Annan, “Education is a human right with immense power to transform. On its foundation rest the cornerstones of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development.“