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Diminishing Returns
By Kate Burch

I have lived in the same medium-size rust-belt city almost all of my life, and I have been amazed to observe, over the last couple of decades, the growth of the physical structures of the area’s two universities.  Along with the remarkable enlargement of these facilities has been an increase in amenities and improved esthetics.  And this has happened concurrently with a steady decrease of our population, starting in 1978 and continuing today. 

The universities have endowments amounting to about half a billion dollars for one school and about half that much for the other.   They also have been on the receiving end of a steady stream of federal dollars for many years.   It seems to me that they are, frankly, awash in cash. 

This richesse, however, pales in comparison to the condition of the Ivy League.  I read yesterday that Princeton has an endowment of more than $22 billion!  Conservatively estimating the return on the investment of those funds results in a total income of $220 thousand for every student enrolled, every year! 

As the money, and the prospect of ever more money, have rolled in, the institutions sought higher and higher enrollments.  The numbers alone, which include many students of lower ability, have called for lowering standards, so as to assist retention.  It is not a news flash that the quality of the product has declined.  I saw it first-hand in my psychological practice when people would come to me for psychoeducational assessment to help determine why they were unable to perform adequately in their jobs.  I found that these individuals typically could not demonstrate proficiency in necessary skills consistent with the number of years of schooling that they had finished.  Sometimes the gap was huge, as in a college graduate’s having less than high school-level proficiency.  This failure of our schools to produce what they promise hurts everyone, not least the graduate who has received false assurance of his or her preparedness. 

There are many facets to the problems with the educational system in our country.  One issue, which will be addressed by proposed legislation, is the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, proposed by Utah Senator Mike Lee and by Florida Representative Ron DeSantis.  This legislation would reform the current college accreditation system, allowing states the opportunity to establish their own accrediting systems, rather than the current, one-size-fits-all system developed and overseen by the U.S. Department of Education.  The system, as it stands, requires that students attend an accredited school in order to qualify for a federal student loan, and it does not allow for the accreditation of individual courses.  Students thus must sign on for an entire, accredited curriculum, rather than tailoring a program that would suit their individual talents, proclivities, and needs.  A student who might become prepared for meaningful and productive work with less than the standard four-years-long slog, for example, is barred from receiving any financial help to do so.  Online courses, similarly, are excluded.  Besides the waste of time and money, the system has also contributed to decline in quality, as accreditation, once granted, is almost never lost, and many programs of questionable academic value and quality are included under the umbrella of rigid accreditation.  So, the student enrollments and the student loans continue to fill the coffers of the accredited schools while many students drop out early or finish with a meaningless degree and crushing debt.  I understand, also, that the schools are not required to repay the funds they have received for a student who fails to complete the program. 

The HERO Act would decouple student aid from the current accreditation system; allow states the right to designate an accrediting body; and allow credentialing of programs of study, rather than institutions.  It would help bring down costs, increase flexibility in designing educational and training programs for students, and eliminate many barriers to innovations in education. 

It’s a start.


 
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