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The UnCollege Blog

"Free" Is a Political Buzzword, But Will It Fix Higher Education?

“College affordability” has staked its claim as a buzzword this election cycle – and with good reason: 70% of students who have earned bachelor’s degrees exit college with debt, adding up to a grand total of $1.2 trillion in student debt. According to Ray Franke, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston “college tuition has been rising almost six percent above the rate of inflation.” It is no wonder politicians are pulling out all the stops to prove college affordability is on their radar: President Obama proposed two free years of community college, while Bernie Sanders called for tuition-free public universities. Hillary Clinton elaborated on these plans, propositioning that families with income up to $125,000 will pay no in-state tuition, and all community colleges will offer free tuition. Donald Trump put forth a student loan program where repayment would be capped to an affordable portion of a borrower’s income, 12.5%.

The problem? Affordability is not the only problem facing higher education and college students, and we have to quit pretending it is.

Don’t get me wrong, college affordability is a ball and chain around the ankles of young people who need an education as well as the students who got a college education and suffer from the wraths of its debt. American higher education is among the least-affordable in the world, and roughly twelve million college students have to take out loans to cover their costs. It is completely unacceptable: If America continues to operate under the belief that higher education is necessary to obtaining future success and stability, then every student should be afforded the opportunity, not just those with the most loans or deepest pockets.

However, Higher education issues run deeper than affordability, and seem far more complex to fix.

There remains a substantial gap between what students are doing in college and what they need to know in the “real world,” and a so-called skills gap is neck-in-neck with affordability in terms of popular discussion. Statistically, students are not graduating within the designated four years, which prolongs the “college experience” at a very literal price of more tuition dollars, and a figurative price of getting started in a competitive job market later. Students emerging from high school are unprepared for the academic rigor of college, proving that while teaching to the test may help them gain entry, it doesn’t do much once students are actually in the depths of collegiate education. Then, there’s the uncertainty of unemployability, which student debt heightens the tension surrounding, because if you aren’t bringing home a paycheck, you certainly aren’t paying loans. All of this culminates in a higher education system that is disconnected, backlogged, and confused about its own intention, on top of being unaffordable, and by extension, impractical.

The Foundation for Economic Education wrote that “without measures to ensure that colleges help their students graduate and find good jobs, free tuition would only shuffle more young people into a system that fails two-thirds of them.” This is accurate in regard to shuffling students in and out of a failing system, but the measures needed to ensure students find good jobs begins before they start searching for work, and arguably even before they sign the dotted line on a loan. Making college accessible is necessary, but ensuring it is valuable is priceless. Otherwise, why the emphasis on affordability? We want educations that are worth something. Research tells us a college degree still holds some value, if only for the sake of employability, given that those with four-year college degrees made 98% more an hour on average in 2013 than people without a degree. Still, it is worth noting that “25% of all college graduates in the U.S. fail to thrive in their overall careers and lives.” According to a Gallup study on whether a college degree is “worth it,” they put forth an answer worth examining: “For most college graduates the answer is: "yes." But only if they made the most of it.”

That’s the key, or, at least, one of them: What makes education worth it? This must be considered not only in financial terms, but in academic, professional, and personal ones, too. While the much-revered “college experience” is likely too individualized to examine worthiness, professional gain and opportunity for growth as a result of your education are necessary factors in repairing higher education’s damaged system. We don’t just need lower costs. We need increased value.

This idea was echoed by Tamara Hiler, education policy adviser at Third Way, who noted “students deserve a better guarantee that if they enroll in college they will get a return on their investment of both time and money." In a report that analyzed student preparation for the workforce, only half of college students said they felt prepared for a job in their field of study. To quote a second survey, 74% of recent graduates “reported feeling as though their colleges and universities had failed to fully prepare them for their post-grad careers.” Imposter syndrome, this is not: Only half of hiring managers agree that recent grads are prepared to enter the workforce.

So what do we do about it? First, we stop acting as though preparing students is asking too much of universities. It is not too much to want an enriching, hands-on education that betters you in ways that improve your life--that is, after all, the reason we supposedly chase higher education in the first place. Second, while on-the-job training is necessary, we have to stop outsourcing college’s job to companies, like “boot camps” that cost thousands of dollars and provide “last-mile training” to graduates. While “last-mile,” or additional, training is not inherently a bad thing, especially given that continuing education is a larger factor in our futures than ever, students should develop the “soft skills” necessary to employability in college. Furthered education should be just that: Continued education with new skill sets, not a repeat of what college enable you to learn. These soft skills are the number-one thing employers think college graduates lack. Why? They are never given the chance to develop them.

It is experience, not just education, that affords students the chance to increase the value of their educations.

At their best, the two should work hand-in-hand, and this is what universities, and those attempting to undo the higher education crisis, must pay attention to. Given that “higher education can insulate students from the real world as much as it prepares them,” why are we isolating students from hands-on learning experiences and believing we can simply replace them with syllabuses? Students need opportunities to work (or intern, or study) hands-on in their intended field before they invest thousands of dollars and hours of time into pursuing it. They need to have work experience before they graduate, not just as a cursory internship tacked onto the end of senior year. Mostly, students need chances to explore, in-depth, not just through textbooks, the areas they are interested in, gifted at, and passionate about. Then, they need situations that provide them the tools to successfully navigate them, not just memorization of theories and hypotheticals that the traditional collegiate lecture hall provides. If we’ve determined college is supposed to prepare students for their futures, for jobs, and for life--as I believe the aforementioned candidates and politicians would agree it should--then we need to address why we are keeping students away from formative life and work experiences in favor of purely academic ones. Isn’t there room for both? For the sake of our students and the value of college, there has to be.

Degrees aren’t enough anymore, affordable or not. As we continue to bust down walls and break barriers between young people and their futures, we have to look at what college gives, not just what we can afford.

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