Avoiding the high cost of the old university system for re-education.

I checked this morning online and a number of sources say that university enrollments in the U.S. are down. There’s a good article written by a former university president on Forbes (1) that describes falling enrollments. Most sources I saw, say enrollment declines are because of covid restrictions. Once you tell people to be afraid of a virus, it puts a chill on public learning. As we ponder falling enrollments, many possible causes, not just pandemic restrictions present themselves. There’s the high cost of tuition in both on-line and in-person learning and there’s also employment insecurity after job placement because of market churn. What can we do? Lets consider.

Apparently, covid restrictions that come with a new expectation that students should use on-line learning has been rejected by some would-be students. It seems that some people don’t like missing out on in-person learning and they will wait until in-person learning is restored rather than try to use on-line learning as a substitute. One of the questions that more people are asking is whether on-line learning offers the same value to learners as in-person learning does.

In-person learning allows students opportunities that are different from on-line learning. In person learning offers more sensations to reinforce the learning process because all five senses are engaged when a person is present with a group of people in a classroom. There are sounds and sights and smells, the tactile sensation of being there, and maybe a cup of coffee to bring from the student union, or study groups to join at nearby restaurants. Going to university is fun for anyone who likes meeting new people and learning new things in person. In person universities also offer a number of services that a person can’t get learning from home, like use of a gymnasium, a large library or a tutoring service. Having a university advisor and professors or other students that you can ask questions of is also a big learning opportunity aid.

On the other hand, use of student in-person services creates costs for students. Those costs have continued to grow by leaps and bounds over the last several decades. Researching historical increases in the cost of America’s tuition shows that competition between American universities for better ratings by rating agencies in the 1980’s and 1990’s led to expensive investments in student amenities that drove up tuition costs. After the Great Recession, many universities experienced cuts in funding at the state level that further increased the cost of university tuition for students.

In the meantime, while university costs were going up, the job market was being changed by aggressive buy-out strategies fueled by cheap interest rates for loans. Large companies could borrow money, buy out a smaller company and put it out of business after liquidating the company’s assets for a profit. This merger/acquisition frenzy that started in the 1980’s and continues in the present, undermines the value of a university education because the length of time that a degree holder can earn money after they get a job based on their university credentialling has shortened.

Are on-line educational opportunities more affordable? So far, a cost comparison between on-line and in-person learning shows only a small reduction of somewhat less than 10% in tuition and other costs. One of the reasons for this small difference is that on-line learning is being offered mostly as a convenience advantage rather than a cost advantage by existing universities. These existing universities are careful to preserve themselves as an essential location of traditional learning strategies. Even non-traditional on-line only universities want to charge the most expensive tuition possible. How can a competitor offer very low tuition rates for on-line learning and compete with high cost already proven value alternatives? How can a lower cost alternative offer provably equal educational value?

There’s a whole gamut of profits for the traditional university system that funds grounds keeping, sports programs, administration, professorships and internships. Universities hearken from monasterial traditions that were all about having a fully functioning ecosystem of funding and engagement. Society wasn’t changing as fast back then as it is changing now. So far, universities have held onto their profitability even though I hear that there are fewer tenured professorships and more administrative positions at American universities. How can we move away from this expensive approach to learning?

Do we as a nation really need the university system to provide a credential for so many insecure jobs? After seeing that buy-outs have destroyed jobs and put people out of work, why can’t we re-employ displaced workers without more credentialling? Why are universities still the gate-keepers of so much of the America’s workforce? Why not administer testing to prove qualification without re-education?

So far, it seems that an emphasis on credentialing has only increased since the Great Recession. Most jobs require specific university credentials and job experience. Most employers want to avoid the costs of training a new employee.

When I studied for my first bachelor’s degree, it was thought that any bachelor’s degree offered a reasonable likelihood that a person could function not just in one narrow field but possibly in many fields. A microbiologist could work in a laboratory in a hospital or work for a sewage treatment facility or work for a food manufacturing company, for example. Many journalists, as another example, were educated in other specialties, not just writing or journalism. There were many entry level positions available to anyone with a basic education.

Widespread expectations that people pay to re-educate themselves seem unrealistic in this economy. The opportunity costs are just too high. Today, we see labor shortages that are only worsening even in fields with high demand and declines in university enrollments. There’s a message here if you are willing to pay attention to it.

Whether a labor shortage is in healthcare, or in trades, our job market needs an alternative to the expensive re-education options and certifications that are now expected. Maybe the fun of a university education isn’t affordable anymore for too many of us. Even trades require a long apprenticeship and journeyman period and not just a test. There’s a time tax on every kind of training opportunity. If there were more affordable re-training opportunities, with a testing option to demonstrate competence instead of a university re-education or guild training, more jobs would get filled and people’s opportunities would grow. That less costly training could be on-line training or self study evaluated with a test to prove competence. If people had an alternative to universities for certification, maybe universities would have an incentive to make their programs less expensive and less time consuming in order to compete. Universities would reform toward less costly programs.

Learn about how we got here today in our U.S. politics and economics by learning about American history. I make it easier by connecting politics and economics more meaningfully over time during three ideological eras. Buy a copy of Political Catsup with Economy Fries, available at Amazon.com.

(1) Nietzel, Michael T., “College Enrollment Declines Have Continued This Spring, Mar11, 2021, Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2021/03/11/college-enrollment-declines-have-continued-this-spring/?sh=17cda6ea5aca

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