Jack Kelly: U.S. colleges failing to give graduates an advantage

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So enormous has been the harm done by the fraudsters running public K-12 schools, you’d think fraud in higher education couldn’t possibly be worse.

You’d be mistaken.

College tuition and fees increased 1,120 percent between 1978 and 2012 — twice as much as health care, four times as much as the cost of living.

Recent college graduates earn 15 percent less than did grads in 2000. Since 2006, for Americans aged 25 to 34, the economic advantage of a bachelor’s degree has fallen 11 percent for men, 19.7 percent for women.

That’s partly because so many do work for which no more than a high school diploma is required. Thirty percent of flight attendants, 17 percent of bartenders and bellhops, 5 percent of janitors have bachelors degrees or higher.

At least they have jobs. Only 16 percent of 2013 grads do, according to the management consulting firm Accenture.

The job killing policies of the Obama administration are mostly to blame. But 38 percent of U.S. employers surveyed by ManpowerGroup have jobs they can’t fill because applicants “are lacking in motivation, interpersonal skills, appearance, punctuality and flexibility.”

Applicants can’t think critically and creatively, solve problems or write well, said managers surveyed by St. Louis Community College.

Colleges and universities don’t offer curriculum that adequately prepare students for the workforce, said 59 percent of senior executives surveyed by the Adecco Group, a staffing company.

Garbage courses and majors have sprouted like mushrooms on a manure pile.

“Core curricula have been elbowed offstage by banal courses in feminism, black studies and queer theory,” said Stephan Kanfer of the Manhattan Institute.

College today is like Lake Wobegon, where everyone is above average. Grades have inflated like Reichsmarks in Weimar Germany. The median grade at Harvard last year was an A-.

Nearly half the students they studied at 24 colleges learned next to nothing in two years, said Professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa.

College students in 1961 spent 25 hours a week studying, on average.

More than a third in the Arum Roksa study spent less than 5.

Only about a third of students come from high school with the basic academic skills required to do college work. That’s partly why college courses have been dumbed down; mostly why it takes students six years to get a bachelor’s degree.

College enrollment swelled from 1.3 million in 1970 to 2.1 million in 2012. The surge was financed mostly by federal student loans, which rose from $7 billion in 1981 to $105 billion last year. The vast increase in federal cash is principally why college costs so much, said Dr. Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity.

“It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees,’’ he told the Wall Street Journal.

The student loan program has been a boon to college faculty and professional staff, their ranks swollen by 400 percent since 1960, and the Democratic party.

But since 1970, the percentage of graduates from the lowest income quartile has fallen from 12 to 7 percent.

Poor minority students are the most likely to drop out. The average graduate leaves college $24,000 in debt. It’s hard for those with shlock degrees and dismal job prospects to pay that back — harder still for dropouts.

Student debt — $1.2 trillion in 2013 — is our problem too, because young people burdened with it can’t buy houses, must delay starting families, are more likely to default on other debts.

The proportion of Americans who have a college degree has increased from roughly 10 percent in 1970 to about 30 percent today. But only 20 percent of jobs require a college education, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates.

To encourage young people who lack the preparation – and often the aptitude and motivation – to do college work to borrow money to obtain a degree that will not improve their job prospects is criminal.

When the degree the student borrows money to get is intellectually vapid and of no economic utility, the crime is magnified.

A woman who borrows $97,000 for an “interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies” is chiefly to blame for the hardship coming her way. But colleges – and politicians — who take advantage of such saps are bigger fraudsters than those who sell them subprime mortgages, or beachfront property in Arizona.

Jack Kelly is a columnist for The Pittsburgh Press and the Blade of Toledo, Ohio.

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