While governors around the country call for more public spending so more people will have college degrees, no one seems to have noticed just how poor many universities actually perform in graduating students. The National Center for Education Statistics lists Arizona State’s four year graduation rate as 28 percent, the University of Arizona at 30 and Northern Arizona University at 27. The six year graduation rates for these three schools stand at 56%, 56% and 47% respectively.
Furthermore, a growing and alarming body of research raises questions about what students are actually learning in college. For example, the American Institutes for Research recently assessed the literacy of 1,800 graduating seniors from 80 randomly selected two- and four-year colleges. The Institute found that more than 50 percent of students at four-year colleges can’t do a basic task like summarize the arguments in a newspaper editorial.
The crisis in our public universities is effectiveness, not affordability. They need competition, not new subsidies. The Arizona legislature created a higher education voucher program, called the Private Postsecondary Education Student Financial Assistance Program, in 2006 in an attempt to do just that. Colorado also has a voucher system in place for its college students.
Arizona’s higher education voucher program helps students pay for private colleges and technical training schools, which often have far higher graduation rates than the public colleges and universities. The program also costs less than the state’s public universities. Because no good deed goes unpunished, Governor Napolitano recommended that the Arizona legislature cut funding for the voucher program.
Our country’s higher education policy needs to return to first principles. Students enjoy the primary benefits of a college education, not taxpayers. Students should therefore have financial skin in the game.
Today’s higher education scene includes out of control costs, questionable and declining value, lack of focus on teaching over research, and a general lack of transparency. We need to fix the system, not throw good money after bad.