You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

I don’t always agree with Ryan Craig, the managing director of Achieve Partners, a private equity firm that invests in new educational models and in digital instructional technologies, but he is certainly among the most perceptive and provocative thinkers about higher ed’s embattled present and possible future.

In a chapter entitled “What’s Wrong With College” in his latest book, Apprentice Nation, he makes several telling points:

  1. Despite dramatic changes in the American economy, college majors have remained largely unchanged. The same majors that were popular 40 years ago remain largely intact today.
  2. Almost none of these majors provide a linear path to a good first job. Instead, their graduates follow a rather circuitous, uncertain route into the job market.
  3. The absence of a clear payoff contributes to the fact that only about half of all students enrolled in a four-year college graduate in six years. Completion rates are materially worse for students from low-income and historically underrepresented backgrounds.

Colleges are filled, in Craig’s view, with dozens of “not a job” majors. Along with low-enrollment legacy majors, like German, most new majors come not from the science or technical fields but from the languages, arts, education, the humanities and the languages—programs that few undergraduates want. Incredibly, a third of the new programs established between 2012 and 2014 produced no graduates at all; half produced five or fewer.

He’s not alone in considering this an utter waste of resources. In his words, “Colleges know what the higher-value majors are but don’t prioritize them.” To cite one example, student demand for computer science more than doubled between 2013 and 2017, but the number of comp sci faculty only increased by 17 percent. The result: 75 percent of the top 25 public universities limited access to high-demand majors, as did 20 percent of their private counterparts.

To cite another example: between 1975 and 2005, colleges increased the number of administrators and noninstructional staff by 240 percent. The increase between 2000 and 2012 was another 40 percent. The increase was particularly pronounced at the most richly resourced institutions; the University of Michigan increased the number of administrators and noninstructional professionals by 53 percent over the past 20 years.

In his popular newsletter and published columns, Craig makes a number of points that strike me as indisputably true and that deserve far more attention than they currently receive.

Some might elicit a chuckle or a bemused smirk. For example, it turns out that college athletes have better career outcomes than nonathletes.

This shouldn’t come as a total surprise. It’s not just a matter of networking. My experience is that athletes tend to develop certain personal and interpersonal skills that bode well in the job market: self-confidence, poise, extroversion and a competitive nature. That’s strikes me as true irrespective of demographic differences.

To me, the takeaway is clear: many more students should participate in athletics, whether intramural or intercollegiate.

But many of the challenges and worrisome developments that the author itemizes deserve a determined response. Here are 10:

  1. Fewer high school graduates are truly college-ready. Many entering students are unprepared for classes in their preferred major. And the blame can’t be cast wholly on COVID-related learning loss. Post-COVID, proficiency in math and reading isn’t improving and, in Craig’s pointed words, the New York Times editorial board has no idea how to solve this problem. Voluntary tutoring and summer remediation programs have not proven to be especially effective. If we fail to increase proficiency, deeply entrenched educational and economic disparities will only persist.
  2. Graduation rates aren’t budging. Fourteen years after President Obama unveiled his college degree–attainment goals, graduation rates remain far too low and time to degree too long. For the third year in a row, the share of students who earn a college credential within six years of enrolling has stalled. Meanwhile, colleges’ watchdogs, the accrediting agencies, “almost never bark.” Just 2.7 percent of the oversight actions by accreditors involved academic quality or student outcomes, even though “at about a third of all U.S. colleges, a majority of graduates end up earning less than an average high school graduate.”
  3. Community colleges—the Swiss army knife of higher ed, which are supposed to address all of postsecondary education’s ailments, access, cost, inclusivity, vocational training and more—are faring particularly poorly in their key functions: college transfer and job placement. With acid words, Craig writes,

“Completion and transfer rates remain abysmal, almost without exception. And too many vocational programs are being shoehorned into associates degrees, the least valued (and worst value-for-money) credentials in American higher education.”

In a recent essay, Kirk Carapezza and Esteban Bustillos describe “The Transfer Trap”—the disturbing fact that community colleges do not provide a seamless pathway to a bachelor’s degree, even though that’s the degree the overwhelming majority of entering students aspire to.

In part, this due to transfer credit loss. But it’s also due to the failure of four-year institutions to do more to recruit and welcome these students and ensure access to essential courses, honors programs, high-demand majors and experiential learning opportunities.

Nor are community colleges especially effective in guiding, training and placing graduates into the kinds of jobs that are the hallmarks of the contemporary economy: in a wide range of health-care, technology and technical fields and in advanced manufacturing.

  1. Failure to launch remains a pervasive problem. A recent survey finds that “a remarkable 65 percent of parents of adult children (ages 22-40) currently provide financial support averaging $718 per month.” This society has significantly lengthened the period of filial dependency. Some of this is due, no doubt, to risk-averse, helicopter parenting—which is partly a by-product of delayed childbearing and lower birth rates. But it also reflects the fact that adolescents themselves have internalized their parents’ values. They, too, are more risk averse than their baby boomer or Gen X predecessors; have had fewer opportunities to participate in free, unstructured, unsupervised outdoor play; or don’t aspire toward early independence or fully adult status.
  2. Selective institutions are fencing off their highest-value majors. A growing number of universities is using special admissions requirements to gate entry into especially popular majors like business, computer science, engineering and even communication, with profound implications for the diversity of those majors.
  3. Flagship campuses have been spending like there’s no tomorrow. For all the talk about access and affordability, 50 flagship universities have increased spending far beyond what it would take to make up for lost state expenditures—less on faculty than on facilities, centers, institutes, support personnel (in IT, advising, career services and academic and student life and nonacademic support), and other noninstructional functions, but also on directors, associate directors and assistant directors and other administrators of all sorts—the infamous administrative bloat.
  4. Flagships and land-grant institutions may not be driving public regionals and urbans out of business, but they are distorting the higher ed ecosystem. As the gaps in resources, course offerings and student services between the flagships and land-grant institutions and their regional and urban public counterparts widen, at a time of growing demographic challenges and persistent racial disparities, the business models of nonflagships are threatened. Altogether, only about 100 colleges and universities are thriving financially, have access to multiple revenue streams and are able to offer a full sweep of degree programs, including in cutting-edge fields. The difference in the kind of college education one receives at these institutions is palpable.
  5. The wage penalty for entering a job unrelated to one’s degree is growing. College graduates who work in fields disconnected from their major generally receive lower wages. This gap has increased since the early 1990s. Thus, it’s more important than ever to ensure that major pathways do a better job of preparing students for the careers they are likely to pursue.
  6. Colleges are doing a poor job of providing students with the digital skills that employers seek. Examples include platforms for sales and customer relations, like Workforce; HR, such as Workday; supply chain management, including Blue Yonder; and finance, like NetSuite. There are marketing platforms, like Hubspot; customer service platforms, such as Zendesk; health-care software like Epic; and software development or app development tools, including Atlassian and Pega; and specialized platforms for “home care (WellSky), construction (Procore), pharma (Veeva), legal (Clio), [and] lease administration (Lucernex).”
  7. Despite repeated claims about the economic value of a college degree, the evidence is not as clear cut as advocates insist. Career outcomes hinge heavily on major and institution—and completion. Those who drop out or stop out or who graduate with a less marketable degree from a less prestigious institution may never compensate for their education’s cost.

As Craig point outs, studies of the economic impact of a college education too often fail to take into account the actual cost of attendance and opportunity costs. In addition, given the absence of randomized, controlled studies, we don’t know whether the effects of college on future income are largely a product of selection bias—that graduates those with certain character traits as well as wealthier parents and more family support are the most likely to succeed.

Even worse, from the vantage point of two- and four-year institutions, less expensive and protracted alternate routes into the workforce—certificate and certification programs, apprenticeships, and other earn-learn pathways—hold out the prospect of discouraging students from pursuing associate or bachelor’s degrees, aggravating these institutions’ financial challenges . As gen ed courses drift into high school as part of early-college/dual-degree programs, many community college and bachelor’s degree–granting institutions are losing one of their major revenue sources.

Ryan Craig is correct: higher ed needs to be disrupted.

  • College isn’t for everyone; not all high school graduates want another two or four (or more) years in a classroom.
  • Four-year institutions leave nearly 40 percent of attendees without a marketable credential; for two-year institutions, the dropout rate is even higher.
  • Instead of boosting social mobility, our colleges and universities tend to reinforce inequality, with students from the top quartile of families earning bachelor’s degrees at five times the rate of those from the bottom quartile.
  • Higher ed fails to attach sufficient value to certain essential workplace skills and underplays the value of learning by doing.
  • Institutions foster unrealistic expectations about what colleges and universities should and can provide.
  • Colleges and universities prioritize tenured faculty members’ interests above student needs.

To address those failings, Craig’s Apprentice Nation touts various “earn-and-learn” alternatives to college as a way to create a fairer society with more social and economic mobility and greater workforce diversity. Craig is right: college should not be the only respectable path to a secure, well-paying job in tech, health care, finance and other sectors of the economy.

I agree with him: this society needs more pathways to a secure and fulfilling financial future, especially for working adults and family caregivers and for those who prefer to work with their hands or engaging in a more vocational field.

But, I would caution, how to implement these alternative, faster, cheaper pathways; how to assure that they remain workplace aligned; and how to ensure successful outcomes—these are big and perhaps insuperable challenges to the vision Craig is promoting.

In the meantime, our colleges, too, must adapt if they are to better meet students’ needs and to nurture the skills and outcomes that faculty deem essential.

What that means is that colleges and universities must:

  • Become more career-aware and much more proactive in finding ways to link (gasp) non-STEM based learning to real outcomes.
  • Prioritize degree completion, accelerate time to completion and do more to help students achieve success in their preferred major pathway.

In a democratic society, a primary purpose of college is not simply to prepare graduates for a job or to ready the most talented students for success in the most highly demanding fields to ensure our nation’s competitiveness—however worthy those goals may be. It is to ensure that all undergraduates acquire essential knowledge and skills that an educated citizen ought to possess.

We must be careful: in our bid to lift attainment levels, we mustn’t water down the quality or rigor of a college education, for example, by embracing asynchronous learning at scale or assuming that high school courses are equivalent to college classes with a subject matter expert.

Improving the quality of an undergraduate education and offering a more immersive, developmental and transformative educational experience with more equitable outcomes is not beyond the academy’s ability. But addressing these challenges will require campuses to reset priorities, redesign courses and degree pathways, reimagine our pedagogies and reinvent our student support practices.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma