There are quite a few interesting news bits in higher-education-land lately:
1.) The U.S. isn't so great when it comes to graduating students from college
2.) Those same students who couldn't graduate also have loans, and now student loan debt has surpassed credit cards. The real thing to consider when comparing student loans to credit cards, is that way more people have credit cards than college loans, so the debt-per-person is significantly higher for the student loan portion of debt.
3.) The President laid out some lofty goals for increasing educational attainment in the U.S.
As great as it is to have a game plan on how to increase those graduation rates, I worry that many of these plans don't address both parts of the issue. In general, I would boil down the two major issues as being of cost and quality. That is to say that there are two main barriers for students entering college, the cost of attending a university and the quality of their prior education, which are exclusionary for those lacking college-level preparation in high school and financial assistance.
Part of the President's goal to increase college graduation rates to roughly 60% over the next ten years (from the current 40%, number 12 world-wide), is to focus on providing more college preparation in high school. Students often lack the basic writing, reading, and mathematics necessary for universities, and then end up wasting time (and money) taking remedial coursework. This lag may contribute to increasing costs, time, and discouragement for students that causes them to not complete their degrees. But I wonder, is high school the whole issue? As we learned a few months ago, reading levels in just the 3rd grade can be a critical benchmark for predicting academic achievements later down the road.
Of course, this is an economics blog, so recognizing the budget struggles of schools at every level (K-doctoral) helps to explain the general lack of resources and quality found throughout the educational system in the U.S. (except for those fancy private schools). Considering those struggles, just in the context of increasing college preparation in K-12, seems already like an edu-pacolypse, where thousands of teachers and administrators have already faced massive layoffs and budget setbacks (just think about what happens to quality when classes increase from 20 to say 30 or 40 students, although the federal government recently offered some assistance here.)
Now for the other side of the story, college is ridiculously expensive and nobody can pay for it. Student debt is only increasing along with tuition, even at public schools. In fact, I am often taken back by the charges on my student account, even though I am paying in-state tuition, with a few scholarships to offset things, and without any room and board, yet the numbers remain nearly equivalent to the cost of a new mid-size car. Despite a few reforms in lending, the fact is students are paying for something few can really afford. This is an obvious deterrent for students considering college, and even for those currently enrolled, the opportunity cost along with tuition can often make dropping out very viable option.
The higher education issue seems to have turned into one big and very messy linear programming problem. How to balance costs, quality, graduation rates, and achievement while dealing with a budget being increasing wrung out and constrained. I'm only an amateur, but it seems as though priorities need to be realigned to putting a value (politically) on bettering the educational system. If economists are seriously worried about some of those Beveridge curve worries, it is also probably time to put a better "price" on the opportunity cost of not improving K-college in the U.S, which eventually translates to social and intellectual capital building.
It takes awareness and political will for these types of change, but there doesn't seem to be much of that other than surface-level goal setting. In fact, it took me far longer than it should have to track down news articles related to student loans and the education gap. Sigh. Maybe it's time for a second round of Morrill land grand colleges? On a more positive note, I've noticed many colleges offering more and more online courses (including my own). I've taken one of these before and hated it, but I can see how these are becoming a good option for revenue generation, making courses available to more students, and cutting costs, though I am unsure of how it effects quality. I don't hope that this is the future of education, but it does seem to be a good strategy for staying afloat.