Is a Four-Year Degree Still Worth It? Maybe Not.
A new book that examines the cult of higher education makes us wonder what that high-priced tuition is worth after all.
A new book, written by author of the seminal Generation Debt Anya Kamenetz, turned my perception of higher education on its head. Somewhere along the way between elementary and high school, I got the idea that I had to go to a four-year college to be successful. That’s just what I had to do. When I learned that some of my classmates were going to the local community college—even though it is rated one of the top community colleges in the country—I looked down upon them and thought of them as not serious about their futures.
Kamenetz addresses this perception in her new book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Kamenetz says, “Sending your kids to college is now part of the American Dream, just like homeownership; and just like homeownership, it’s something we have been willing to go deeply into hock for.”
But even after Kamenentz’s case against the traditional four-year grind, I still tend to believe that that perception—for good or bad—is deeply ingrained. When I was looking for jobs, most listings required a bachelor’s degree. When I go to networking happy hours, the inquiry following my name is always, “Where did you go to school?”
Kamenetz calls this universal belief in the power of higher education a “world religion.” A four-year degree is seen as “a pathway out of poverty.” I am a believer in the power of higher education and my life thus far is a testament to it. But Kamenetz has rocked that perception with her analysis of the way colleges play games with the cost of tuition and how technology has great potential to overhaul the system of higher education, just as it has done with media.
Kamenetz starts with a history of higher education, kicking my “liberal arts” education in the teeth with the fact that name for a “liberal” arts education comes from what they called the education necessary for free men—as opposed to slaves. Colleges were originally mostly private and did not receive federal funds; they struggled for students and taught theology, geometry, ethics, grammar, and hunting. Then, in the 1860s, states established agricultural and mechanical schools, which revolutionized the way the public perceived colleges. After this change, colleges were seen as hands-on institutions that taught practical skills. By the early 1900s, college became a way to achieve social status. That fact is still largely true today. Education trumps race; if you go to college, there is the potential to move up in class even if you have no money and come from little of it.
According to Kamenetz, universities no longer offer the pathway out of poverty that was once (and still is) so widely believed. This is where Do It Yourself (DIY) education and Edupunks come into play. Kamenetz proposes that in the future, higher education institutions will no longer be as powerful as they are now, and the bundle of services they deliver (socialization, hands-on learning, theoretical learning, networking, and a diploma) will become separate entities.
The open education movement is one of free and low-cost open course ware that is delivered to the student mainly through a computer screen. “The sites iTunes U and Youtube.com/edu are two places where free audio and video from dozens of top-tier universities, museums, archives, and cultural institutions can be found.” The University of Southern California (USC) has completely online courses that uses 2Tor, which uses several applications to mimic office hours, widgets, assignments, and the classroom.
But the open education movement, as innovative as it is, doesn’t cut costs. And the skyrocketing cost of higher education is one of the most compelling parts of Kamenetz’s argument. She discusses “cost shifting” in universities, or when a university system raises tuition because state funds are down instead of cutting costs, as most business’ would do. But the cost doesn’t lower when funds are flush either; when federal student aid increases, universities see it as an opportunity to expand programs, hire more faculty, and be less dependant on state funding.
“More than two-thirds of undergraduates are taking out student loans and the ability to finance tuition through loans and home-equity lines of credit has made families less sensitive to tuition increases,” Kamenetz writes. Students would be more invested in keeping tuition stable if they had to pay for it all by themselves, Kamenetz argues. Instead, the federal government subsidizes most student tuition, thus making it less desirable for universities to simply cut costs in other areas than hiking up the cost of education. “This river of cash makes institutions less concerned than they should be about efficiency, and makes students and families less concerned than they should be about prices,” Kamenetz argues.
As costs go up at universities, they most often simply raise the cost of tuition and do not look to cut costs in other areas. Unfortunately, student loans are mostly dispersed to middle- and upper-class students who go to schools that cost more, and not as much to poorer students, who largely receive institutional and federal grants—if they get the opportunity to go to school at all. Kamenetz calls this a “backdoor tax,” which means that instead of getting more funds through appropriations, they get it indirectly from students who borrow the money from the government (and subsidized private lenders) and then the government pays the college.
Kamenetz talks to the dean of the education school at USC, Karen Gallagher, who says of their online courses about the lack of cost cutting. “I don’t know if I’d use that word—efficiency. We actually haven’t sat down to do a one-on-one cost comparison," Gallagher says. If you want a USC degree you have to pay USC tuition.” Gallagher’s attitude toward online education reflects the attitude that many graduates today face; it matters much less what you learned at school than it does where you went to school.
New technologies certainly have the potential to change education; nearly all of the innovative proposals schools are working on are compelling. But there is still the big issue of the weight of the brand of a school. I can read all the material and pass all the exams in the online coursework at MIT, but all that knowledge does not equal a degree from MIT. And it is that degree that’s going to get students a job. The perception is that online courses still don’t amount to the same prestige a degree from the institution does.
Kamenetz questions everything I’ve been taught, and calls out higher education as more of a myth than a path to success. It seems inevitable that higher education will eventually evolve into something completely different, but it will also take an entire shift in our worldview. Even as Kamenetz points out, those who are pushing for a shift in education are employed by those working at higher education institutions who still upon their degrees. Perhaps that reality can be shifted, but for now, I will still rely on my liberal arts degree. And I know I’m not alone.
Lisa Gillespie is a former staff writer for Campus Progress as well as the Managing Editor & New Media Director at Street Sense. She graduated from the University of North Carolina–Asheville.
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