We had the dot-com bubble that burst in 2000, followed by the U.S. housing crisis we’re just starting to pick ourselves up from. And if that wasn’t enough to send us into shock, we now have this higher education bubble to contend with. A bubble that’s, apparently, about to burst.
Yet, while we reel in agony over the rising costs of tuition, categorizing the entire education system as one that’s broken and in serious need of repair, Babson’s President Len Schlesinger is sitting there seeing 5,500 students apply to be a part of the College’s Class of 2016. Out of the students who are admitted, 50 percent are receiving some form of financial aid. And within six months of graduation, over 90 percent of the Class of 2011 claimed to either have jobs or their start at a graduate degree.
To Schlesinger, the higher ed bubble “is a phrase made up by the media,” who’s unproductively “painting a broad brush” and “characterizing an entire sector of the economy as being in a bubble.”
And although bad habits have been addressed, several schools trying to rebound are still repeatedly brought down — at least the large public institutions. “My concern about the public institutions is that they’re becoming an afterthought of the state legislature of which they’re a part,” Schlesinger says. “There’s no question that our public institutions are being significantly threatened.”
UMass was recently criticized for hiking their tuition 4.9 percent. While Schlesinger admits it’s “an easy target to say schools waste money and can cut costs,” he notes the problem is that the level of support historically provided by the state government is now expected to be provided by the students. A decade ago, the state paid about 60 percent of the cost for the education programs at UMass. Yet, according to the Boston Globe, those proportions have practically been reversed.
“There’s no question there’s been an increase in individual student debt,” Schlesinger says. When talking about the aggregate amount, however, which has surpassed one trillion dollars, Schlesinger notes the number of students attending college has also increased dramatically. Between 1999 and 2009, enrollment rose 38 percent, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million. People keep toting college as “the best investment you can make,” but Schlesinger’s the first to admit that not everyone should go to college.
Why? Because some are enrolling and leaving four years later still lacking basic work skills. “People borrow money for this education, but they’re not prepared,” Schlesinger says. “That’s a problem of design, and there’s no question that’s going on.” It’s the only part of the so-called “bubble” Schlesinger will agree with. What schools need to ensure is that they’re properly training their students before shipping them off into the workforce.
Beyond the “bubble,” Schlesinger says he’s heard everyone celebrating the power of online education, whether it be edX, Udacity or Coursera. And while he could not be more positive or enthusiastic about the platforms, what he does mention is that while people are writing about the “200,000 who signed up to this course, no one is writing about the 160,000 who aren’t finishing it.”
Problems in education abound, however, and instead of separating fact from fiction, Schlesinger sees everyone making generalizations and losing confidence in the higher education sector. “No one wants to hear the complex story. Everyone wants to say there’s a ‘bubble.’”
It’s easier to blame joblessness on the institutions. And while, for some, that criticism might be appropriate, for others, like Babson, it’s frustrating to be lumped into a failing category.
“This is going to shake itself out over the course of the next couple of years,” Schlesinger says. The goal is just to decide “what kind of secondary education [to deliver] for what kind of people, for what kind of purpose.”
Photo Courtesy of Charles Lee