It might have seemed like an inappropriate remark coming from someone about to be named president of a major university, but Gov. Mitch Daniels broached an important topic last week when he observed that not every student should aim for the traditional college education.
“There are more Americans today with college debt than with college diplomas,” he said. “So there are an awful lot of people saying that, as important as it is, the way it is may need some changes.”
Student debt in the United States topped $1 trillion last year, according to an estimate by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That has created a “high education bubble” that is in danger of bursting. A hot debate over what to do about it in education circles, and Daniels isn't the only one calling for new approaches to college. Both State Superintendent of Education Tony Bennett and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence have said the state should pay more attention to students who want to start their careers right after high school instead of going to college.
According to Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, the labor Department is saying the majority of new jobs over the next decade will not require a college degree. And more than one-third of currently working college graduates are in jobs that don't require a college degree.
And because we have been pushing every student to attend college, there are too many people there who aren't really capable of mastering college work. “This leads colleges to alter their mission,” Vedder says, “watering down the intellectual content of what they do.”
So college gets more and more expensive as the diplomas they provide become worth less and less. It's a recipe for certain disaster.
One avenue for change, as Daniels, Bennett and Pence have all suggested, is to put more emphasis on vocational education. The goal should not be college for all but an opportunity for all students to take the paths that make the most sense for them. With only students who really belong in college, it will be easier to make a college degree actually worth all the money that is shelled out for it.
Daniels is not just another politician spouting off about something that's not his concern – a charge many educators leveled at him earlier this year when he urged state lawmakers to cap most bachelor's degrees at 120 credits. He will be in a position to effect changes in the college approach, and it's a good sign that he's already talking about doing so.