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.