After the 112th Congress effectively struck a deal last year preventing interest rates on subsidized Stafford loans from almost doubling to 6.8 percent from 3.4 percent for another year, many students from across the country were exultant. Not surprisingly, they deemed this bipartisan compromise (a rarity in Washington these days) as step towards lowering higher education costs and alleviating the crushing burden of debt threatening the futures of so many American college graduates. But this eleventh hour resolution, although widely praised by both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, is nothing more than a temporary fix to a longstanding problem; one that cannot be addressed without painful and systemic reforms.
On Thursday night, I attended “Bursting the College Bubble: The Status of Higher Education Today,” hosted by America’s Future Foundation and the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy. Moderated by Lindsey Burke, an education scholar at the Heritage Foundation who focuses on state and local issues, the four-person panel expounded on the value of a college degree, discussed why college costs are rising exponentially, and reviewed the government’s pernicious role in the American higher education system.
Conventional wisdom dictates that obtaining a bachelor’s degree from an accredited university is a golden ticket to the American Dream. Indeed, as the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy’s Jenna Robinson explains, “70 percent of high school graduates go on to [pursue] some kind of [postsecondary] academic degree” for this explicit purpose. But despite this seemingly positive trend, students are dropping out of college at unprecedented and alarming rates.
Andrew Gillen, a fellow at the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, explained this phenomenon in simplistic terms: “For every 100 students who attend college [only] 58 graduate,” he said. And of those 50 student who graduate, “only 38 use their degree in some meaningful sense.”
Let those numbers sink in.
In other words, only a small percentage of Americans attend college, graduate, and use their degree in a relevant field. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as Burke explained during her opening remarks, “there are 115,000 janitors, 83,000 bartenders…and 80,000 truck drivers [in the United States] with bachelor’s degrees.”
Not only have recent college graduates earned degrees they don’t use (after having taken out hundreds of thousands dollars in loans to pay for them) but the labor market is moving in a surprising and perhaps unanticipated direction.