America’s elite higher education institutions are the envy of the world. Foreign students flock to the oldest and wealthiest U.S. research universities to take advantage of resources that are unparalleled, thanks to the deep pockets of many centuries’ worth of captains of industry.
Yet when we consider the post-secondary institutions that educate the typical American high school grad, we see a very different picture. While the share of Americans who enroll in higher education has grown substantially in recent decades, graduation rates have been stagnant.
Community colleges promise an affordable education to millions of students, but they often fail to offer the courses students need to complete a degree in a reasonable amount of time. Public colleges and universities churn out graduates who are forced to take jobs that don’t actually require a four-year post-secondary education. Most private non-profits do the same, and they’re also notorious for charging obscene tuition that their graduates can scarcely afford. And private for-profits, which have grown enormously by taking on some of the hardest-to-accommodate students, stand accused of loading up their students with debt without offering them marketable skills.
It is hard not to sympathize with the Obama administration, which last week launched a new effort to ensure that career training programs are meeting the needs of their students. The problem with the new White House push, however, is that it focuses on a too-narrow aspect of America’s higher education crisis: about 8,000 vocational programs at community colleges, state universities, and for-profit colleges, which train students in subjects like business administration, nursing and automotive repair.
The basic problem that the Obama administration hopes to tackle is that while a large and growing number of students enroll in vocational post-secondary schools, most of whom make use of federal grant aid and subsidized loans to meet the cost of tuition, an alarmingly high share of them are failing to find well-paying jobs. And students who can’t find well-paying jobs struggle to meet the cost of servicing their loans, let alone pay them off.