An expensive free pass for colleges

By Jeff Rundles | Aug 20, 2013

By Jeff Rundles

My neighbor’s child is off to Boulder and CU as a new freshman this week, and of course he is hopeful, excited, and a bit apprehensive, while his mother is wistful and sad. And shocked. After helping out with all of the applications and planning and orientation and shopping, she also got the first bill for tuition, fees and the dorm. She showed us the tab and we were shocked too – four years after our last of three CUers finished up it’s pretty clear that in Boulder, at least, the sky isn’t the limit. We thought the costs of a CU education had reached the lower edges of outer space in 2009, but obviously now it’s halfway to the moon with plans for a Mars mission.

This is not good news for parents and students, obviously, because college costs have clearly left the realm of reality. But it’s not good for Colorado as a whole, either, and one wonders whether the value of a college degree has dropped as fast as the costs are rising. Sure, the state should support higher education here in a greater way, a now sort of axiomatic platitude we hear all too often. But as I look at the charges from these institutions, I am beginning to wonder whether college these days should be the given we have always assumed.

I am a big advocate of a college education – at least I used to be. But I look around in the Colorado business community, especially the entrepreneurial marketplace, and I wonder. For a few years I worked in a business that built websites, and while we had several college graduates, some with very technical post-graduate degrees, the sheepskin itself wasn’t really a measure of competency. Indeed, the brightest programmers and web developers there barely abided high school, and for what I could tell could give any college professor a run for his/her money any day of the week.

And I suppose I don’t even have to point out that many, many of the most celebrated and successful entrepreneurs over the last 30-40 years were either college drop-outs or launched ventures that had nothing to do with what they actually studied in college.

So the question is, while colleges and universities are demanding more and more in resources all the time, are they delivering enough to justify the expense? Are they educating the workforce of the 21st Century?

It seems as though academia sort of justifies itself. Most companies won’t hire executive-level positions without the college degree, and there is always some bias toward the “better” schools – e.g. Harvard, Stanford, et al – but after that most degrees are an afterthought. Plus, employers look at the resume for education and make assumptions about the applicant and the school, but rarely do they ever check out the schools for curriculum to see if it is relevant to the job at hand. In other words, for the most part the only people holding the colleges and universities to any sort of standards are the colleges and universities themselves. Business owners and managers – the consumers of the higher ed product – pretty much give academia a free pass.

We’ve been hearing time and again that the future of a prosperous American economy depends upon a highly educated workforce, but it doesn’t seem like businesses themselves are aligned enough with higher ed to get what they need – or, indeed, to even know what they are getting.

It’s an old cliché but applicable here: just what does B.S. stand for?