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Across our country, state funding for higher education has decreased significantly over the years. While in 1990, states funded an average of 75% of the total cost, in 2015 that figured dropped to 53.5% (State Higher Education Executive Officers 2015 report). The difference falls on families, student loan debt, scholarships and grants to make up the difference. The competition for scholarship monies has intensified. Entire industries have cropped up to help students find these important sources of financial assistance. Many do, and many don’t.

Instead, they rely on the student loan industry to fund their education. Causing many to end up so deep in debt that their ability to contribute to our economy upon graduation decreases dramatically (for more, see this article by The Center for Investigative Reporting published June 28, 2016).

Let’s face it, if your student loan debt load takes up 30% of your salary, your ability to buy consumer goods, invest in a new home, buy a car, save in a 401K or IRA, all go on the back burner as you slowly pay off the debt.

Higher education desperately needs the student loan industry to fund the current model. That is, the model with an enticing campus, comfortable dorm rooms, recreation opportunities, sports complexes, excellent faculty, modern buildings, computers, lab equipment, support and administrative staff, etc. And it needs this to support students at all levels: freshman who are still trying to figure out what they want to major in, sophomores who are starting to understand how college works but still finding their direction, juniors and seniors who have chosen a path but then need to buckle down and make it happen, and graduate students refining their knowledge while obtaining advanced degrees.

This model is expensive to maintain and not very flexible. Healthcare costs continue to spiral upward, buildings must be maintained, and new ones constructed to support new curriculum and run-down facilities. All of that while states reduce funding to higher education and students shoulder the burden to the point where in many state universities, students are forced to drop out because they can’t afford to continue. Not because their grades were bad but because they can’t afford to continue. Since 1973, average inflation-adjusted public college tuition has more than tripled — increasing by nearly 270 percent — but median household income has barely changed, up merely 5 percent (Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities based on the College Board and Census Bureau)

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Of course, they can’t afford not to either. Among millennials ages 25 to 32, median annual earnings for full-time working college-degree holders are $17,500 greater than for those with high school diplomas only (Pew Research Center).

This dynamic hurts our country. Take cybersecurity, as an example. In the US, there is a shortage of some 209,000 cybersecurity jobs according to a January 2016 article in Forbes magazine. Postings for cybersecurity jobs are up 74% over the past five years. Demand is expected to rise to the point where in 2019, there will be a shortfall of some 1.5 million jobs. This leads to a perfect opportunity for higher education to supply qualified candidates. Problem is, many students can’t afford the education under the current model.

Reality is, the likelihood of states turning back toward 1990 funding levels is practically nil. Funding of K-12 education, health care, pensions and infrastructure consume a greater and greater percentage of state budgets (NASBO). And this while our economy is as strong as its been in many years. What will happen when the next recession hits?

Maybe it’s time to re-think the delivery system for higher education and operate under the reality of a continually decreasing share of funding coming from state coffers and an increased burden from students themselves. Public universities educate close to 73% of students (National Center for Education Statistics 2014). That’s where the focus must be.

I believe it’s time for change and time for university leaders to think differently. For example:

  • Why do freshman and sophomore’s need to be on campus to take 101 and 201 level classes that can be delivered at a lower cost through community colleges and over the internet? It’s already happening in many rural communities because of the distance involved in students traveling to class at a central location. Distance learning can have better outcomes than traditional classroom learning, as well. (Hannay and Newvine, Journal of Online Learning and Teaching)
  • Why not create a common core curriculum that all state colleges accept for key undergraduate classes where the credits transfer to each and every state university seamlessly whether taken remotely or at a community college. That would eliminate duplication of effort, offer scalability and ensure basic skills are met.
  • Why not create university centers of excellence and funnel students to the university that best fits with their chosen major rather than investing in overlapping degree programs at universities in the same state? Why do three public universities within 100 miles of each other all have to offer similar curriculum? Let’s have a university with a great business program, another with an amazing engineering program, etc. Overlap is expensive and wastes precious resources.
  • Why not focus the undergraduate experience at Junior, Senior and graduate students. I’d prefer to see the enrollment scales tipped toward graduate students then freshman and sophomores who could be spending less by attending community college or taking web-based classes.
  • Finally, career counseling investments are critical. True, many of us have no idea what we want to do with our careers during freshman year. We may start to get a better sense during sophomore year.  How about investing in career services, so students could make a better decision about continuing to invest in a university degree versus attending a trade school or entering the military. According to the Association for College Admission Counseling, the average American school now has one guidance counselor for every 500 students.

This takes me back to cybersecurity and the shortage of well-trained graduates to enter this critical profession. With a more nimble higher education system, shifting resources to create or expand “centers of excellence” focused on cybersecurity training would be much easier. Classes could be taught by professors located anywhere in the state via the internet, which would provide opportunity to scale the number of graduates. Recent articles in The State of Security regarding the pay scale available for cybersecurity professionals (Part 1 and Part 2) show it’s a lucrative profession.

It’s time to re-think the higher education model. State funding is unlikely to turn around. Students can’t afford crushing levels of debt. Families can’t afford to make up the difference. We don’t want access to higher education something only wealthy families can afford.

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  • wayoutthere

    It would also help if the cultural diversity course were cut from 12 hours to six or three saving time and money

  • David Barnes

    The way of the traditional campus setting is fading fast. Why, just as the writer has offered costs, those overhead costs that drive most businesses into alternative means to meet thier objectives, profits.

    Online is that fastpaced alternative for many reasons as the writer has offered. Comfort, alternaives in setting, thinking about our servie memebers globally who fight day in and day out and at the same time find a safe moment to work towards an education, plan for thier famlies future and keep our conutry as safe as possible. Just one example.

    Single parents, working day in and day out utilizing the internet for an advance in an educational goal to provide for thier families and the economy. The cost of the educational experence is exspensive, the debit grows and sure students take on another growing debit but as the writer has offered the degrees, the jobs and the alternatives are better for everyone.

    Alternatives in every fast paced setting globally for everyone is the internet.

    Cost, incentives and the bottomline is what shareholders are looking at.

    Good post, great article.