College now
Is fraught with woe;
Wants to go.

Everyone is going to college these days, whether they need it or not. And why shouldn’t they?

With jobs so hard to come by, you might as well beef up your resume as stand around on the corner. After all, the Census Bureau reports that the median salary of a college grad is $55,000 while high school grads are stuck at $34,000. And if you’re a returning GI, the government now gives you a boost. Pell Grants are back up, too.

Thus, community colleges and state schools are brimming with students getting ready for when those elusive jobs finally return. However, not everyone can get in. In the meantime, many have to settle for menial work to keep food on the table and gas in the tank.

Into this pool slink the sharks, masquerading as “institutions of higher learning.” There are several species. Most apparent are the commercial colleges, which conjure up any sort of program that sounds as though it might sell.

Some are legit; others make it up as they go along. An acquaintance entered the X-ray technician curriculum of one such outfit in Florida. Upon graduation, he discovered that Florida was awash in X-ray technicians. Back here in Connecticut, the state doesn’t even recognize his license.

Many of these “schools” live off government guaranteed student loans, which they expertly assist students in obtaining. Once enrolled, who cares if they fail the course or if the degree is valid? They still owe the money and Uncle Sam is still on the hook if they default.

Congress is finally closing in on these questionable education establishments. So the institutions are reverting to that old tried and true defense mechanism, the full-page ad in The New York Times.

Then there are the barracudas–the banks. While they continue to exploit students’ financial vulnerabilities, the feds recently made some critical reforms. Last spring they passed the Healthcare and Education Act, allowing more students to receive their federal loans directly with better interest rates and payment plans. So at least these private barracuda banks can no longer be the bloated middle feeders of the student loan industry.

Add to this, a growing share of the public–55 percent–understandably believes college is essential for personal success. This rising tide, plus our swelling population, puts huge pressure on existing universities to expand.

But higher education has become very expensive and expansion is tough. Bequests from successful old grads often cover the new bricks and mortar, but salaries and upkeep are harder to fund.

These burgeoning costs are having a depressing impact on academic life. Fewer professors get tenure. Salaries are languishing. Classrooms see more adjunct (part-time) instructors. Class loads are on the increase. Research is dwindling. Marketing begins to replace prestige. Parents grouse. And then graduates can’t find a job.

Meanwhile, manufacturers complain that they can’t find workers with the necessary technical skills.

At issue is that no one is in charge of higher education in the United States. It’s a free market with every student looking out for him or herself and every college and university and trade school doing the same.

The American higher education system works well in good times, unleashed from the hand of government control. But in bad times, it has led to destructive imbalances in career training, as well as the entry of those sharks and barracudas that feed on our vulnerable young adults and our tax dollars.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative and a former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut.

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