Is higher ed in the U.S. really that bad?

John Ebersole, President, Excelsior College.

For several years we have heard commentators – political, economic and academic, as well as media – tell us that our education system, at all levels, is failing us. With the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act now before Congress, criticism has shifted from how we allowed our children to be “left behind,” to the many failures of higher education itself.

Critics allege a wholesale inability to:

  • Contain costs;
  • Retain and graduate students (ideally within four years);
  • Teach the right subjects or, in the opinion of some, promote any new learning at all.

To “correct” such performance it is contended that government – state and federal – must do more to hold higher education accountable. Critics on the political left and right many argue against the autonomy of institutions, especially with $160 billion in tax-funded financial aid at stake.

To support their concerns, these critics note that:

  1. The U.S. is in a free fall relative to global rankings of countries with a high percentage of college graduates in the workforce. This is an oft-cited reason for President Obama’s call for action;
  2. The 500 percent increase in the cost of degree attainment over 30 years;
  3. Fewer than 40 percent of entering students finish an undergraduate degree in four years, and more than 20 percent never finish;
  4. 20 percent of entering students require some form of remediation;
  5. Employers do not see recent graduates as “work ready” when hired. A February Gallup/Lumina Foundation poll of business leaders found that only one-third felt higher education institutions were preparing students with the skills and competencies businesses need.

But perhaps a closer look is warranted…

Read the rest of John Ebersole’s column on Forbes.

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