The business of higher education

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It was all over the news this past week. Wealthy people were arrested for using bribes in order to get their children into major universities. What made it even more interesting was the fact that a couple of the people arrested were wealthy Hollywood TV actresses.

Nobody is completely surprised. Especially if you have dealt with higher education over the years.

Twelve years ago, my old television finally gave out. I decided to go ahead, bite the bullet, and buy a flat, wide screen TV. I paid over one thousand dollars for the TV, which was on sale at the time. A couple of years ago, I replaced that TV with a new one. The new one has a bigger screen, and is one of those “smart” TV’s. (Sadly, I’m not smart enough to take advantage of all of the “smart” extras on it.) But, interestingly, the price of the new TV was around half the price of the one I bought ten years ago.

Why? Probably the main reasons that the cost was much less were the increased competition among TV makers, lower cost of production, and improved technology. And that means a better product at a cheaper price.

That should be true in every type of business. But it’s not in one – the higher education business. There is more competition among those institutions of higher learning for students and their academic dollars than ever before. The options for students are more than ever. Online learning has opened up opportunities for students that weren’t even thought of twenty years ago. Many graduates may never see the brick and mortar of their college campus during their studies. (Where is the University of Phoenix or Southern New Hampshire University anyway?) Internet and online technology help institutions of learning deliver instruction to more students in a more efficient manner.

More competition, lower cost of production, and improved technology. So the cost of a college education should be going down, like the cost of a television. But it’s not. According to a CNBC report, “Between 200 and 2013, the average level of tuition and fees at a four-year public college rose by 87 percent.” College tuition has been rising at an annual rate of almost six percent over inflation.

The reason why colleges and universities charge so much for higher education and the cost is increasing so fast is simple. It’s because they can. The federal government backs up student loans and makes it easy for students to borrow money for college. Today’s college student will graduate with an average of $30,000 in student loan debt. The colleges will get their money from the federal government. Colleges can raise tuition without worry because they know they will get paid no matter what.

There is also the societal demand for a college education. Children are preached to from childhood that they must get a college education if they want to get ahead. Parents are not good parents unless their child attends the right college, even if the cost is outrageous.

I enjoyed my four years in college. It was a good experience. But it’s hard to think of anything specific that was taught in any of my classes at ECU that helped me during my work career. That’s true of many college graduates today. In 2018, more students graduated from college with a degree in Communications than there actual total jobs in that field. So where will they end up working?

I had to know a lot in my job. But it was knowledge gained through training and experience, not from a college classroom. But my job required having a college degree. Often, employers use that college diploma, or the lack of one, only as a way of weeding out job applicants. And I’ve heard employers joke that they had to “unlearn” new employees from misinformation they learned from classes back in college.

Of course, higher education is important. There are some occupations that the traditional college education is essential. I want my doctor, lawyer, teacher, etc., to know what they are doing. But, with the changing economy, maybe it is time we change the way we look at higher education in relation to other careers.

Education and knowledge are still important, probably now more so than ever. But with today’s ever-changing technology and available opportunities, education can, and should, be a lifelong process. It should not just end up being four years of college financial debt accumulation — and be another way that the wealthy and privileged further separate themselves from everyone else.

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

Mac McPhail, raised in Sampson County, lives in Clinton and can be reached at

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