Higher anxiety

Alan Ryan considers whether traditional university education has run its race

June 30, 2011

Innumerable high-level conferences, in process or planned, are all asking the same question: what is the pay-off of higher education? The urgency of this question, both in the US and the UK, has some obscure reasons as well as the obvious ones.

The obvious reason in the UK is that with tuition fees set to triple, the question of what students get for their money during their courses - as a boost to lifetime earnings, or as some sort of intangible enhancement of their social, political and cultural existence - is hard to evade.

In the US, there’s been no such sudden, uniform jump across the whole system, but the same questions are being asked.

This being the season of commencement (I don’t know why Americans call graduation “commencement”), US students have been congratulated, praised, exhorted and encouraged, but with heavy undertones of anxiety about what is going to happen to them once they’ve given their gowns, hoods and mortar boards back to the rental agencies. The reason is drearily obvious: the American job market is dire.

On the face of it, they should be OK. Just as in the UK, workers with degrees make about £12,000 a year more than those without, and the unemployment rate for graduates is about a third of that of workers with only high-school qualifications - in the US, that means 5 per cent against 16 per cent. But both rates spiked in the recession and are falling very slowly, and there is no consensus about what the numbers mean.

Some commentators think that there is a shortage of skilled labour and a real demand for graduates, others that we are seeing a shake-out, with graduates taking jobs for which they are overqualified; where firms are downsizing, workers with degrees are being kept on, but downgraded to lesser jobs while their less educated colleagues are fired.

What is agreed by all is that the rate of job creation is far too low to absorb all the graduates seeking work.

The quality of jobs on offer matters even more to US graduates because American student loans are like mortgages or credit-card debt: once you have left education, you are supposed to pay them off; you can’t even escape by declaring bankruptcy unless you are at least five years into the repayment period or can prove in court that being required to repay would cause “undue hardship”. This severity towards student borrowers is an attempt going back 35 years to protect the finances of the federal government, which makes or underwrites the majority of student loans. It was extended to private lenders a few years ago.

It is not only because Americans are used to colleges whose “sticker price” for tuition is $40,000 (£24,430) a year that they don’t understand why British students are so upset about paying £9,000; they are also used to a daily diet of horror stories about unemployed young people being harassed about debts of $100,000. You don’t just need a job, you need a job that pays well, and you need it at once.

There are also some less obvious reasons for anxiety about whether conventional higher education institutions have had their day. The great demographic shift of the past 40 years has made the idea of a “conventional institution” pretty shaky. The student population has changed enormously - from white male school-leavers to a cross-section of the American “melting pot”, in which mature female students are the largest category. However, what they are mostly enrolled on is still traditional: minimally two-year associate’s degree programmes, but hopefully four-year bachelor’s, even if barely half will get them within six years.

One suggestion, backed by the founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel, is that students bright enough to go to universities such as Harvard and Stanford would get more out of high-tech apprenticeships. He is paying 24 volunteers $100,000 apiece to skip college and learn entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley for two years. Like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Thiel is a dropout who made good. It will be interesting to see if his gamble pays off, or if his proteges decide to drop back into the California Institute of Technology.

But there are increasingly loud whispers that the standard route after high school may be more generally obsolete; one suggestion is that students could assemble a portfolio of qualifications, mostly online, with no suggestion that they would add up to a degree. I doubt employers would be as impressed by this as they are by the standard article, but who knows? There are already a few firms acting as middlemen to help students get their self-assembled qualifications validated.

If conventional institutions do find their student base eroded, it will add to the growing sense of a crisis in the humanities. The old struggle between defenders of a liberal education that turns its beneficiaries into properly cultivated citizens, and believers in whatever post-secondary instruction might make its beneficiaries “job-ready” continues unabated, but the terms of the argument seem increasingly unfavourable to the defenders of liberal education.

In the UK, government philistinism has been a fact of life since 1979, and would surely be no better under Labour; in the US, the congressional passion for cutting federal spending might even-handedly destroy support for science as well as the humanities, but once it gets down to the university level, when budgets are cut, the humanities take the biggest hit.

It is not obvious where to look for consolation - certainly not to politicians either side of the Atlantic. It looks as though the sentimental attachments of the alumni will become increasingly important in higher education, and not just at the poshest of the private universities.

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