A Long Overdue College Rating System

The Obama administration is considering a proposal to set up a college rating system that would measure whether graduates earn enough money after leaving school to live substantially above the poverty level -- and perhaps even pay off their college debt.

If there is any concept more likely to rattle the ivory towers of academia, I cannot imagine what it would be. As the world moves forward into the 21st century, our colleges and universities remain mired in the 19th, growing ever more distant from the realities of the modern era while they become ever more bloated, inefficient and out of touch.

For too long, it has been widely accepted that a college degree is a surefire ticket to economic and social success. Secondary schools place great emphasis on college admission to the point that the teaching of industrial arts, in which students of bygone days were trained for practical careers, has gone by the wayside. Each year millions of optimistic young Americans walk across the stage to receive that all-important sheepskin, and then head off into the real world looking for gainful employment. All too often they end up driving taxis.

Meanwhile, our colleges and universities ignore the growing obsolescence of their product while raising their prices to unprecedented heights. Since the late 1970s, tuition has surged more than 1000 percent while the consumer-price index has risen about 240 percent. The percentage of annual household income needed to pay the average tab for a four-year degree reached 36 percent in 2010, up from 16 percent in 1970.

Where does all that money go? For the most part, academic institutions are engaged in a self-serving arms race hiking pay to attract professors with impressive credentials and loading up with superfluous administrative personnel. Within the past decade, for example, the University of Minnesota added 1,000 administrators and now has one administrator for every 3.5 students. Other institutions of higher learning are not far behind. Meanwhile, their expensive professors are reducing output. The old 12-15 hours per week teaching load has declined to about 6-9 hours.

Colleges and universities have been getting away with this unwarranted rise in costs, not because parents are getting richer, but because of the availability of college loans guaranteed by the federal government. This is a trap that a growing number of young people are figuring out. They are learning they can never escape college debt, not even by declaring bankruptcy.

As an advocate for manufacturing I have long lamented the failure of our schools to prepare young people for practical careers in industry. But the problem of education/training in our country goes deeper than that. What we need is a comprehensive national system to direct young people toward jobs in the real world, and show them how to obtain the requisite skills. The traditional four-year degree is an anachronism of diminishing value. It will take time to wean our universities away from their wasteful ways, but we can begin by focusing public attention on the inadequacy and increasingly irrelevancy of their product. The future for most students lies in two-year technical training at community colleges where they will prepare for real world jobs. This option will take less time and save serious money.

Jerry Jasinowski, an economist and author, served as President of the National Association of Manufacturers for 14 years and later The Manufacturing Institute. Jerry is available for speaking engagements.. January 2015