"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
December 31, 2013
Higher Education
by Adam Smith

There is no college system in any other country that can compare to that in the United States. Other countries may have a college or two that has some prestige, but the United States is filled with great colleges.

There are colleges in every geographic area of the country than can make a claim to being very good in selected disciplines. Yet lately, you can hear reports about the demise of higher education in America.

There is some cause for concern and, of course, I will give my opinion on the cure.

This current concern is in part an economics question. The market for higher education in America has been distorted by the government (of course). The federal government freely loans students money to attend the college of their choice, and repayment is not required until the student is no longer in college.

Just take a minute to think about the incentives that these federal loans create. To many students, it feels like they are going to school for free. To have to start paying back the loans in five years seems so far into the future to an 18-year-old.

Five years earlier they were still in junior high school. And when you decrease the perceived cost of something, you get more of the good and you get less scrutiny of the product.

In essence, you get our current higher education problem. Students taking forever to graduate because, like, you know, like, it is almost free. And when they do get done they have to start paying back those loans but without a job to do so. The other issue is because the cost is deferred, many students do not look at the cost versus the benefit. What kind of job can I get with the education I am getting?

That is how you end of with $1.4 trillion in student loan debt and repayment that is in question.

That is how you end with bloated college administrations and staff.

That is how you end up with the cost to attend college growing faster than inflation.

What can be done to remediate some of these problems? (Note: Most people that are paid by colleges are going to be horrified.)

First, get the student loan process under control. We should all be able to agree that the government helping out a little for someone to attend college is not bad. But we should also be able to agree that the government should not be in the business of loaning money for a student to attend any college that happens to suit their fancy.

The loan amount should not exceed the tuition of a good state university in the state that they live in. Not the best, not the worst but just the average. And no more loans for huge tuitions to private schools.

A student could still go to a private school, but the student loan will only be for tuition costs of a good state university. And no loans for living costs. What I am saying is that the student will be paying for some of their costs. When you have some skin in the game, attitudes can change.

Second, you can only get loans for five years of undergraduate work and another four for graduate work. This is enough time to realize what you want to major in and to get your degree.

Third, all professors must teach, at a minimum, four classes each semester. Currently, two classes is the average with the rationale that the professors need to do their research so they can get published so they can get tenure and keep their jobs.

The fact is that most professors do little to advance thinking in their disciplines. Let’s get rid of the “publish or perish” mentality and have the professors actually teach for a living. It would be sufficient if one state school in each state was a research university. All the rest are there to teach and educate at an efficient cost.

Fourth, textbooks will be selected and used for a minimum of five years for the same class at a university. All teachers teaching the same course will use the same textbooks. It is just time to stop the textbook money machine.

Last, a college at a university would need to justify the number of people they are letting into their college based on the jobs available upon graduation. For example, if a state knows that it needs to replace 1,000 teachers in its elementary, junior, and high schools each year, then it is only allowed to graduate a number close to 1,000 teachers each year. (By the way, this would have the benefit of greatly increasing the competition to get into education and graduating better teachers for our kids.)

There are four recommendations. I realize that many will say that learning for learning sake is beneficial and is a virtue in itself. I agree, but my recommendations do not in any way prohibit someone from going to college their entire life. But they will pay for it, not the rest of us.

These recommendations will not solve all the higher education problems, but they would be a start. They would make the students consider what they want to study more carefully, make schools start thinking about their responsibility to the students, make professors that will never move the needle on advancement of thinking productive, and make the cost of higher education more affordable.

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About Adam Smith

Adam Smith is obviously not the actual name of the author of this column. The real author has worked for two Fortune 500 companies, one privately held company, and a public accounting firm. His undergraduate degree was in accounting, and he earned an MBA for his graduate degree. He also has completed coursework for a PhD. in finance. He continues to be employed by one of the Fortune 500 companies.

The author grew up in the Washington D.C. area but also lived for several years in Arizona. He currently resides with his family on the East Coast.

The author has held various callings in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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