Only twenty percent of future U.S. jobs will require a bachelors degree or higher. That statement made by Kansas Senator Steve Abrams during his presentation of a new funding model at last week’s State Board of Education was correct. It matches the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Employment Projections up to 2016. Another 4.2 percent will need a two-year’s associate degree while all other U.S. workers will need on-the-job-training, related work experience, or a vocational certificate.
While only one-in-five high school graduates will need a college degree, over three in five are starting college. But far fewer finish college in four years or even in six years. Why?
The two main reasons appear to be: 1) the rising cost of public universities, and 2) too many students attending college who are not academically capable of completing college work.
A new study "Increasing Time to Baccalaureate Degree in the United States" by John Bound, Michael F. Lovenheim and Sarah Turner was issued this month. The time it takes students to complete a baccalaureate degree has gone up rapidly in the U.S. over the last 30 years. By analyzing long term data from the National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972 and the National Educational Longitudinal Study of 1988, they found little increase in time to complete a degree in the large selective universities. But students took much longer at the public universities. The problem is mostly among the economically poorer students. There was a substantial increase in the amount of time these students had to work "to meet rising college costs and likely increased time to degree by crowding out time spent on academic pursuits."
If higher tuition costs, which have outstripped inflation, are causing students to work more and slow down their studies, the question becomes: "why are tuition costs so much higher?" For every one dollar in tuition paid by the student, Kansas used to add two more dollars. Today, with so many students aspiring to university study, Kansas barely matches student tuition dollar-for-dollar. The surplus of high school graduates who are convinced they need to go to college has grown our universities and has driven up tuition costs. The underprepared need remedial courses. The unmotivated need a year off. The incapable need alternatives. And many capable students may very well fit technical training better.
Sadly, several initiatives across the U.S. are pushing universities to "increase retention"—a codeword that boils down to inflating grades. Others are imposing common course syllabi and testing—No Child Left Behind at the university level. Another plan (Developmental Education Initiative) by six states (Connecticut, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas and Virginia) moves remediation down to the high school level. No initiative promotes the many good non-college jobs that America needs.
Under the current state funding situation, K–12 schools will take a major hit regardless of the budget adopted. The situation has become a choice between more consolidation, or massive consolidation.
But Kansas higher education has a place to cut as well. Currently, Kansas high school students with low ACT scores can still be admitted through admission "windows." A student with an ACT of 14 has no chance of completing a bonafide college baccalaureate degree, nor will many with scores of 16-17-18.
Establishing a "hard-20" ACT requirement for admission to Kansas public universities would go far to both increase retention and decrease costs. The few students excluded but who are college material can study further to raise their ACT scores for admission.
Perhaps we are a populist state where every parent says "I pay taxes, so my child has a right to go to a public university." But in hard economic times, taxpayers cannot afford to subsidize 9-out-of-10 students with low ACT scores in order to save the 1-out-of-10 students who had a low ACT but can rise to complete college work.
When pressure builds up to retain and graduate students who are not doing college level work, it devalues the bonafide baccalaureate degree.