24 May 2013

Is A Bachelor's Degree Worth It? -- Possible Solutions


It's worth noting that we do not claim to possess the singular solution that will cut this Gordian knot. But, we do know of exactly two very obvious things:

  1. the current system is failing the American people and threatening the very ways of life to which we have built with our blood, tears, and toil
  2. our country cannot afford to sit on our laurels and do nothing; the current status quo cannot possibly be an acceptable solution

Rather, our intent is to simply provide some ideas that we think might help the country as well as spur other individuals, groups and organizations to further develop workable solutions. There are numerous stakeholders in this debate (parents, students, university officials, politicians, and leaders of business and industry), and it is vital that each of them be engaged in the crafting and deployment of any sort of solution.

Without further ado, this are some of the basic ideas Chewie and I have thought about:

  • For starters, if we are serious about encouraging people to better themselves by going off to college, then we need to devise innovative ways to maintain tuition and fees at manageable and reasonable levels
    • Yea, we know increases will be needed to keep the schools open, but they should not exceed inflation rates without extraordinary reason.   
    • It goes without saying that the higher the tuition rises, the fewer people that will be able to afford a university education
  • Second, we need to ensure that high school students as well as the non-degreed adult populace have easy access to unbiased and factual information sorted by school and major on things like:
    • Graduation rates
      • Overall
      • By department and major
    • Job placement rates
      • Overall
      • "In the field" jobs that substantially relate to the major 
    • Typical salary ranges and/or median salaries of recent graduates by major 
    • Median student debts (including federal and private student loans) incurred by recent graduates
    • [Authors' Note: We'll present an example of this as an appendix by using the 10 worst majors according to recent Kiplinger surveys] 
  • Third, we need to ensure that high-school guidance counsellors aren't so ill-prepared on things like financial aid options and alternative options to four-year universities
    • Sure, there's knowledge of scholarships and grants, and where to apply for them--but that's only part of the story 
    • Simply put, these counsellors cannot simply continue to tout the "UNIVERSITY OR BUST" mantra any longer; they should be familiar with:
      • Other local options such as
        • Community colleges (aka junior colleges and technical colleges)
        • Accredited career programmes (e.g. licenced career academies)
        • Apprenticeships and other "school to work" options 
        • Connections and resources regarding military recruiting and enlistment
        • Knowledge of job-placement and career centre choices (such as those run by a state department of labour or "workforce development" bureau) 
  • Fourth, we need to reform the student-loan structure to ensure that more students are able to pay back what they owe. 
    • Some ways we believe this could be accomplished include: 
      • Tying institutional eligibility to receive federal student aid to the abilities of colleges and universities to: 
        • Produce graduates with improved competencies in college-level skills (such as communication, critical thinking, and abstract/complex reasoning) 
        • Show decent job placement rates overall, and within their fields and make that information (along with recent grads' median starting salaries) available to the general public in easy-to-understand formats (see "Second,...")
        • Keep tuition, fees, and other costs within reasonable levels
      • Restoring formerly-held provisions in the federal bankruptcy statutes that allow for reducing, consolidating, or discharging federal student loans in bankruptcy petitions 
      • Expanding certain programmes that allow for student loan forgiveness after, say, 15 years of payments and provide a lower timeframe of forgiveness (e.g. 7-10 years) as incentives for: 
        • Satisfactory employment in civil service (at the federal, state, or local levels) 
        • Honourable service in the Armed Forces and Uniformed Services 
        • Certain professions that would be involved in restoring and maintaining critical public infrastructure, public safety, and/or public health 
        • Employment at an approved non-profit organisation or charity 
        • Teaching certain subjects/grades in much-needed areas (e.g. inner-city school districts, rural areas)
        • Providing certain medical, dental, or legal services for the poor and in depressed and/or rural areas
        • Certain specified missions overseas, such as certain activities with the Peace Corps 
      • Allowing for statutory limits on how much one can be assessed for payment per month (e.g. President Obama's proposal to cap student loan payments at 10% of income)
      • Simplifying and improving access to federal loan consolidation, and perhaps allowing certain student borrowers with private loans to consolidate them with any federal loans at a reasonable federal interest rate
      • Expanding access to income-based repayment and hardship deferments
        • Allow for automatic hardship deferments if a borrower lawfully qualifies and files for unemployment insurance and/or longer-term worker's compensation
        • Allow for medical deferments during and shortly after a serious medical incident involving the borrower
        • Restoring the 6-month grace period between graduation (or dropping out) and start of repayment, but also provide incentives for people to start repaying their balances as soon as they can
      • Rescinding the provisions that automatically deny Social Security and Medicare for outstanding student-loan debt unless the borrower proves total disability and/or death
  • Fifth, we need to develop a business and industrial climate that spurs growth and incentivises companies to create meaningful employment opportunities for American workers
    • True, there's a small trend to "onshore" work that was previously offshored by American corporations, but this trend needs to be encouraged
    • We also should seek to foster a balance that provide earnest opportunities and markets for businesses to grow in profit, but also one that enables Americans to earn wages and benefits that allow them to flourish independently, and without government or charity assistance
    • We believe that industry, labour, government, and citizens would need to consistently be able to work together
      • Yea, we know this is going to be far easier said than done given our sociopolitical and economic orientations as a country
    • In addition, the federal government must necessarily enforce existing laws governing entry of foreign workers into the United States, and where needed close loopholes to prevent misuse, fraud, and/or abuse of visas
      • In particular, we are thinking of the H-1B and L-1 visas
  • Sixth, alternatives to the bachelor's degree need to seriously be de-stigmatised in contemporary society and culture
    • As a greater society, we need to accept that not everyone is cut out for getting advanced degrees; indeed many people flourish through vocational or technical programmes, military service, etc. 
    • Of course, we also need to do our best as a society to not let credential inflation run rampant in the job market for those who do in fact decide to pursue post-secondary education
  • Seventh, we need to ensure that university educations are more meaningful and worth the cost in terms of abilities, knowledge, and useful skills gained
    • A bachelor's degree should mean more than "I sat through four more years of school" and should demonstrate greater complex reasoning, critical thinking, communication, and community engagement skills as well as cutting-edge knowledge in their majors
      • What we mean here is that it may be time for universities and possibly the government to start the process of reform
    • We also need to discourage the "C's get degrees" mentality as well as grade-inflation 
      • Specifically, we ought to ensure that we are not in fact rewarding mediocrity and/or "taking the path of least resistance" 
      • This also implies ensuring a solid work ethic as part of the useful life-skills that are supposed to be imparted whilst obtaining a university education
  • Eighth, we believe that accredited colleges and universities should partner together to ensure transferability of credits whenever and wherever it is practical 
    • Of particular mention, we believe there should be more articulation options for community college graduates as well as knowledge about the transfer process to ensure success as transfer students
      • A community college student ought to be able to have current data that will easily show him/her how their community-college classes may be transferred to a four-year institution
        • Many states and campuses have online services and/or are enrolling in plans like uSelect, but implementation currently isn't widespread
  • Ninth, we believe in the ideas of online learning programmes that have been evolving over the past 10 years and that they can make a positive difference
    • Information should be available on possible flexible/online/distance degree programmes
    • Online courses can evolve from the popular "iTunes U" and Coursera massive open online course programs as well as more traditional distance-learning options
      • For example, perhaps institutions can develop ways that allow for institution credit to be awarded provided someone has:
        • successfully completed the online course, 
        • demonstrated specific competencies and/or objectives, 
        • has passed related "credit by department exam" requirements
        • has either paid some reasonable fee for the course, or demonstrate that they are currently enrolled at the institution at a specified level (i.e. at least half-time, or only for full-time students)

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