Sunday, June 12, 2011

Should Colleges Be Made Responsible For Their Graduates’ Earnings?

What’s the first question that college graduates learn to ask on the job?
”Will you have fries with that?”
-- A sad, current joke.
Many college students go into substantial debt to pay tuition. Yet, they graduate unable to find jobs that pay enough to permit them to live in poverty, even, and pay back their education loans. Education Week reports,
Students at proprietary colleges represent 12 percent of
higher education enrollment, yet they take out 26 percent of
all student loans and represent 46 percent of all student loan
dollars in default. -- Education Week, June 10, 2011
The same article in Education Week, announces new regulations by the U.S. Department of Education that require college degree programs to disclose information about loan repayment rates and graduates’ earnings. The expectation is that if college programs fail to graduate students who can avoid loan default, they will lose federal funds to support student tuition loans.

Is it fair to the colleges and universities to make them responsible for economic outcomes of student career choices?

One argument has it: Yes! Make them accept the burden. Students are strongly encouraged by university personnel into programs on the basis of their “personal interest” with little consideration when they choose a major as to how they will support themselves afterwards. If earning potential were to become a touchstone of desirability, universities might have to, for example, dip into endowments or provide special scholarships to support the faculties needed to maintain certain traditionally highly esteemed programs with low graduate earnings potential.

A counter-argument has it: No! It is a basic moral principle that the burden of one’s responsibility ought be constrained by the range of one’s control. The requirements for and the availability of employment outside the educational institution are not controlled by those educational institutions. We live in a society that has a more-or-less free market economy. This introduces a certain whimsy into the existence and size of job markets.

There is a good argument for exempting K-12 education from later-life employment responsibilities. (See below) However, a college education is not compulsory the way basic education is. And, unlike basic education, it is strongly correlated with a person’s level of economic success.

To examine the argument against basic education’s economic responsibility, see Moral Responsibility in the Education Industry: 
how much can school reform enhance a student's occupational fitness? Can higher education offer the same kind of defense?

--- EGR