5 Reasons a College Education Isn’t What It Used To Be

My father likes to reminisce about how, once or twice a year, my grandfather wrote a check for perhaps a couple hundred dollars. That was the cost of tuition at the University of California, Berkeley, in the 1950s.

Those were the days!

A college education has indeed changed tremendously in the past decades and not only because students now have smartphones to do everything, certainly more than the slide rule my dad used.

1) Some Students Want Want to Carry Guns on Campus

S&W 500 & NAA Mini

Photo by ~Steve Z~ / Flickr

Across the U.S., legislators in several states (Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada and Texas) are pressing for measures to overturn bans on carrying guns on campus. Since 2007, 60 laws to allow people to carry guns on campus have been proposed in 30 states; all been defeated, says the Chronicle of Higher Education.

A group called Students for Concealed Carry claims to have over 40,000 members and argues that it is a constitutional right to have firearms on campus so people can protect themselves, to prevent tragedies like the shooting at Northern Illinois University in 2008 that left five dead and 21 injured.

But as the Chronicle clearly states, “the argument that more guns would lead to safer campuses does not seem to stand up to facts.” College campuses are, statistically, “among the safest public spaces in the nation” with a national homicide rate of one in one million students. In contrast, suicide is 100 times more frequent than homicides and lifting gun bans would mean greater access to guns for a “population of people who are, statistically, much likelier to turn those guns on themselves than on others.”


2) Fancy Buildings Have Become More Important Than People

12.19.2010 <voyeur> 338/365

Photo by Phil Roeder/Flickr

Why does college cost so much? The New York Times offers one reason: the building spree many schools — private and public, large and small — have engaged in, to attract students to their campuses. Schools have built dormitories, academic buildings and recreational facilities and ended up in debt. These academic “edifice complexes” have occurred at a time when enrollment is flat and revenue from cash, pledged gifts and investments has fallen more than 40 percent relative to the amount that colleges and universities owe.

Harvard may be the wealthiest university in the U.S., but it also has the most debt, to the tune of $6 billion. Miami University is a public institution in Ohio; its debt in 2011 was $326 million, up from $66 million in 2002. A small Catholic school in Maryland, Mount St. Mary’s University, is $63 million in debt and its credit is now rated as junk. Ramapo College of New Jersey, a public institution, has racked up $281 million in debt to build a new business school, dormitories, a 2,200-seat arena and a new wing of a buildings for a nursing program.

Some administrators justify their spending on climbing walls, wine bars, etc. as necessary to maintain their schools’ position in college rankings which now include categories such as “the best dorms” or “the best athletic facilities.” A better physical plant means better students, administrators contend. But guess who may find costs from debt nudging up their costs, and their own debt?

3) Most Classes Are Taught By “Contract Workers”

I am using the term “contract workers” to describe adjunct professors as that term gives a better sense of what it is like to be “contingent faculty” hired to teach courses, often at the introductory level (such as English composition). At many institutions, adjuncts teach the majority of undergraduate courses. They are often officially able to teach no more than two classes so they can be classified as temporary rather than full-time employees and so they are unable to receive medical benefits.

The number of full-time faculty positions has declined in recent decades: Today, 1 million out of the 1.5 million professors in higher education are not on the tenure-track. In a very tough job market, many Ph.D.’s find themselves cobbling together adjunct teaching at a number of different schools in order to earn enough to make a living.

Universities rely increasingly on adjuncts for the simple reason that it costs far less to hire a number of part-time teachers than one full-time faculty member in a tenure-track position. The latter, should they meet criteria for research, teaching and service, could receive “permanent life-time employment” as tenure can be described as, with opportunities for promotion (and pay raises).  Having some faculty who are full-time and receive benefits, and others who are temporary workers, does not exactly create the best community among faculty members, some of whom could be teaching the same courses on a very different pay scale and with varying amounts of time to prepare and assist students.

4) Online College Courses Are Becoming More Common

Udacity - great use of YouTube

Photo by AJC1 / Flickr

Technology is also changing who college students are taught by and how. The New York Times has dubbed 2012 the “year of the MOOC,” of massive open online courses. MOOCs are  destined to be not only the wave but the way of the future, especially as a number of very high-profile research universities (both private — Stanford, M.I.T. — and public ones — the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Texas) have been investing resources to create them, as have companies including Coursera (which now has 1.7 million users) and edX.

So far, many MOOCs are free. Due to their “massiveness,” there is no individual interactions with professors. Also, most MOOCs do not provide students with credits that could be transferable to “bricks and mortar” schools, to earn an undergraduate or other degree.

Many traditional colleges and universities have created their own online courses that do provide students the opportunity to earn credits. But most schools simply have neither the resources (technological, financial) to compete with MOOCs nor the world-renowned faculty. Could the day be near when schools (with an eye on their bottom line) hire adjuncts to handle grading and “student interaction stuff” while leaving the lectures to MOOCs, while only a select handful of students are taught by living, breathing faculty in the same room?

5) Debt On Student Loans Grows and Grows and Grows

From 2000 – 2010, tuition at four-year-public colleges increased by 5.6 percent per year. About 1 in 5 U.S. households had debt to repay on loans to attend college, with the average amount owed about $26,682. Total student loan debt now exceeds $1 trillion. Nearly one in every six who have borrowed for student loans is now in default.

In other words, students today graduate not only with diplomas, but with debt, which could last throughout their lives and much of which goes unpaid, with ultimate repercussions on the U.S. economy in the form of lower demand for “big-ticket” items like houses and cars.

No wonder one frequently come across arguments justifying why college is worth it. Is it?


Related Care2 Coverage

A Liberal Professor On the GOP’s Higher Ed Platform

The Financial Drama Of An Average College Graduate [Infographic]

Grieving Father Struggles to Pay Dead Son’s Student Loans


Photos from Thinkstock unless otherwise noted


Steve D.
Past Member 1 years ago

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Ashlyinebroke A2 years ago

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Tom C.
.2 years ago

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Kathy Perez
Kathy Johnson4 years ago

the cost of education has gotten ridiculous. We need education reform, and this is a huge issue that needs help

Fiona T.
Past Member 4 years ago

We've got to think twice

g             d c.
g d c4 years ago


Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W4 years ago

very sad

Melania Padilla
Melania P5 years ago

Thank you, so agree!! Thanks for posting

J C Bro
J C Brou5 years ago

Dr. Chew, you are most accurate, as usual. Thank you for this!

John B.
John B5 years ago

Thanks Kristina for the excellent article and info.