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OP-ED | Sorry, College Shouldn’t Be For Everyone

by Terry D. Cowgill | Jan 3, 2014 5:30am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Economics, Education, Opinion

Shortly before the holidays, the state announced that college enrollments in Connecticut had suffered a 2-percent decline from 2012. At a time of economic stress, when Connecticut’s public colleges are a comparative bargain that might keep more students from fleeing to other states, how could this be? My reaction: Well, duh!

To be fair, the drop in enrollments probably has less to do with anything happening in Connecticut than it does with national trends and the upward pressure on tuitions causing students and their parents to reconsider whether such an expense is really worth it.

According to InflationData.com, since 1986 tuitions have risen nationally at two and a half times the rate of inflation. Shockingly, that trend continued even into the 1990s when the dot-com boom was pushing college endowments to soaring heights.

As the cost of college has increased, so too has the availability of the federal grants and student loans that distort the higher education market. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, about 61 percent of students leave Connecticut’s colleges each year in debt. The class of 2013 departed with an average student debt of $27,816, or 25 percent higher than five years ago.

The appalling cost of a college education has led many to question whether the time and money spent pursuing it might be put to better use. Was tearing down the walls of elitism and marketing “college for all” a good thing? Of course, the colleges themselves love that message since it creates a higher demand for their product.

It only stands to reason that the surge in college enrollments over the last 30 years has contributed to the scourge of grade inflation we hear about so often in higher education. Particularly for colleges below the top tier, there is nothing more important to the business model than student retention.

After all, it’s much cheaper to keep a current student than it is to go out and find a new one to replace a dropout. And what better way to retain mediocre students and make them feel successful than to give them grades they don’t deserve?

But beyond that, college for everyone is a bad idea economically. We need skilled tradespeople: carpenters, plumbers, electricians. Those are steady respectable jobs with good wages and benefits. And best of all, they’re more secure than lots of white-collar jobs. An IT support desk job can be sent out to India, but you can’t outsource your HVAC technician.

So at a time when enrollments at four-year colleges are finally dropping and we need to train the next generation of tradespeople, what are we doing to prepare? Funding to Connecticut’s 16 vocational-technical high schools is woefully inadequate. The vo-tech district, which is almost entirely state funded, has seen its budgets remain flat over the last several years, even as demand for its product has increased.

A couple of weeks ago, at a Capitol hearing before the General Assembly’s Education, Higher Education and Labor committees, we learned that outdated equipment is the norm, safety violations existed on most of the vo-tech district’s buses, and one of the district’s schools was forced to close. Meanwhile, there were 6,000 applicants last fall for only 3,000 available slots, leaving hundreds of qualified students on waiting lists.

On the other side of the tracks, the UConn juggernaut seems to get all the funding it wants. The money-losing health center in Farmington received $864 million in additional funding two years ago, thanks to the swift action of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who rammed the legislation through the General Assembly without so much as a public hearing.

As I wrote last year, UConn has a $312,000-a-year provost, 13 vice, deputy, and associate vice provosts, seven vice presidents, and 13 deans. President Susan Herbst, who receives a $500,000 annual salary, also has a $199,000 chief of staff and has hired a $227,000-a-year PR flak who earns more than any of Connecticut’s community college presidents.

Something’s wrong with this picture. At a time when the higher education bubble is poised to burst, we’re pumping even more money into it. But when young people want to learn a trade and find a steady job, they’re often turned away. Heck, it’s enough to make young people move to another state. Oh wait, they’re already doing that.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(10) Comments

posted by: DirtyJobsGUy | January 3, 2014  9:06am

All levels of public education are a giant patronage system.  (and because of this the private colleges have followed suit).  The instructional and direct support staff in most colleges has stayed the same over the years (Profs, Grad Students, A couple of secretaries and techs per dempartment) while the infrastructure and administrative staff has ballooned.  TO bring this down, you will cut off the lifeblood of many politicians.  We are at the first stage of the decline of the “Eds and Meds” idea of economic development.  It will not end well.

posted by: JoinaUnion | January 3, 2014  10:12am

I don’t disagree with much of what you write. College should not be for everyone… check. (Smart students would be a nice start.) We need well paid trades people… check.  College is not as rigorous and demanding (grade slide) as it was… check.  We need to improve support for vo-tech… Check.  UCONN gets too much money to spend wastefully, right there with you.  So why am I writing?  Because you equate a dollar amount only to the value of higher education.  It’s not just a job or a level of pay, but also an educated view of the world, which brings general well-being and the ability to better pursue your happiness in the world.  College did that for me.  I look critically at the media, government, medicine and much more, before forming an opinion, or choosing a path that makes me feel satisfied.  That’s a good life.  I don’t make a ton of money, though as a state employee, most people think that (blame the media and the legislature).  But I work hard and do enjoy immensely what I do, and what I do with my life.  That’s the value of a college education.  I still do not regret the loans I have now paid off, or the hard work to achieve two degrees.  I have a wonderful life thanks to the education I worked hard for.  MY college education was well worth the price.

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | January 3, 2014  10:52am

Terry D. Cowgill

JoinaUnion, I’m certainly not trying to suggest college isn’t worth it for everyone who attends. But students for whom it’s not terribly useful are still being pushed in that direction. It’s almost as if being a tradesman is equated with failure.

I wouldn’t have been disappointed at all if my own kids had wanted to go into occupations that did not require a college degree.

BTW I enjoyed my own college education and grad school. It’s hard—but not impossible—to be become a successful writer without a formal education.

A lot of the tradespeople I know are smart, savvy, very involved in the community and make a lot more money than I do. grin

posted by: Bluecoat | January 3, 2014  1:09pm

The State DOE has a pilot program with the State Colleges to align admissions to the Common Core Program, which means lowering the standards to allow more kids who aren’t college material, to be able to get into college.

posted by: Bluecoat | January 3, 2014  1:12pm

Here’s the link

posted by: Bluecoat | January 3, 2014  1:13pm

A great read by a CT PArent, Keeping tabs on the State DOE…

posted by: Bluecoat | January 3, 2014  1:32pm

Public is welcome to first area Common Core community Forum


Time to show up and ask all these Gates Funded organizations some tough questions!!!

posted by: Greg | January 3, 2014  2:58pm

“We need skilled tradespeople: carpenters, plumbers, electricians.”

This.

And despite still high unemployment, there is a shortage of skilled, qualified tradefolk nationwide and will only get worse as demographics sort themselves out. 

“An IT support desk job can be sent out to India, but you can’t outsource your HVAC technician.”

Nope, and when you need a plumber in the middle of the night…$$$.

posted by: Salmo | January 5, 2014  2:44pm

So, who decides that? You?

posted by: imheretohelp | January 5, 2014  6:15pm

The problem is every parent wants better for their child. There also seems to be a sense of entitlement when it comes to college educations and the liberals..“how dare my child be denied…you know I am a liberal right…we only bear forth genius children.” Oh my. These are the same helicopter parents that give everyone a trophy and that has a graduation for every grade level.

I work for a living. I can tell you its hard to find qualified people to learn a trade.  They all went to college and have huge loans and no skills. The reality is we need a system that directs kids based on a skill set to a career that they might actually succeed in. Give them a choice and a carrot. Follow the path we lay forward and we will give you loans grants and the like.. Ignore it, do as you wish, and you will have to fund your own education. Yes social engineering…and we need it desperately.

Last point. Colleges. Oh man is it a sad day. I have friends that “teach” at Uconn Well they don’t actually teach. They are tenured. So they phone it in a lot. The grad students do the teaching, and the “professors” they just collect their checks, write an article here and again, get Uconn to pay for their travel to conferences…its a sad state. And as for grades…well it was put to me like this by a friend of mine that teaches English at Uconn…its not his job to flunk these kids or even to grade them. His job is to teach them. If they learn then great, if they don’t…well he can’t force them, and he can’t fail them as he was told because they “tried”...and at Uconn trying is enough.