The school year is winding down and many seniors are beginning to think very seriously about their plans after graduation. Throughout their educational career, students are told to study hard and get good grades so they can get into college and get a good job. The notion that a college degree is the only viable and consistent path to a successful future is sold hand over fist to students of all ages.
This path to success by way of higher education, however, seems more treacherous and uncertain than ever. Put simply, the narrative of graduating from a post secondary institution in four years directly after high school and then settling into perpetual economic comfort is now more fiction than fact. The American system of higher education is broken and if it isn’t fixed soon, the consequences are only going to become more serious.
From the time that Harvard College was founded in 1636 to midway through the 20th century, higher education in the United States was almost exclusively reserved for the nation’s elite. In 1910, there were 37,000 students receiving bachelor’s degrees from American institutions. Due in large part to ambitious Federal programs, including the New Deal-era G.I Bill and Lyndon Johnson’s Higher Education Act, and widespread sentiment that higher education is a tool for social mobility, enrollment in and the number of colleges expanded rapidly. In 2010, American colleges and universities awarded 1.6 million bachelor’s degrees.
This rapid expansion of the American university system, though pure in intention, has yielded concerning and potentially damaging results. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 41 percent of those who start college don't finish. Students who dropout of college, overwhelmingly lower class with few if any family members with degrees, are left with large amounts of debt and nothing to show for it.
In short, the number of students attempting to attain four-year degrees is too high. Those not cut out for college life are cast out, riddled with debt and few prospects for their promised socioeconomic mobility. With such a high number awarded every year, these degrees become devalued in the market place. Many are finding that even after their completion of college, a good paying job is no longer guaranteed.
There is no one solution to this problem, but a more efficient education system begins by dissociating the American dream with higher education. Scores of well-paying jobs in manufacturing and the skilled trades are available to high school graduates. Moreover, many of the expanding fields in the American economy require more vocational-based training rather than traditional liberal arts education.
The future of higher education in the United States is a complex issue. A comprehensive and responsible solution will not be easy to come across, but if the path to finding one is gone down soon the problem will only grow larger.