By: Benjamin Droz
Today’s world does not have a welcome mat for high school graduates. In fact, it seems that the more one looks into the job market, the less accessible it appears. A college degree is increasingly important for the careers that allow Americans to live at a middle class level and raise a family in any degree of comfort, and a bachelor’s degree is, often times, only the bare minimum for these forms of employment. At the same time though, the cost of a college degree is rising at a frankly frightening rate, 1,120 percent since 1978, four times faster than the Consumer Price Index over the same period, according to Bloomberg. This fast escalation in prices is putting the cost of post-secondary education beyond the reach of many Americans. According to NPR, today two-thirds of American bachelor’s degree recipients take out loans to attend college.
For bright American students looking to carve their way in the world, this is bad news indeed. To cope with rising tuition costs, students turn to financial aid and scholarships, along with student loans. For many students, the entire system seems quite unfair. They see a labor market that increasingly requires extensive education, while the higher education system gets increasingly, and prohibitively, expensive. It is really easy to understand how many intelligent and hardworking students feel nearly powerless in this vicious cycle, and feel unfairly penalized by the system as it stands now.
Yet it is also easy to see how difficult a problem this is when the opinions of well-to-do families are considered. It is not taxing to understand how a wealthy family may be upset at paying full sticker price with hard-earned money while other students receive the same education at the same school for heavily reduced rates. It is extremely important to keep this in mind; no solution to higher educational financing should start from a point at which any significant group’s interests are left out of the methodological process. Wealthy people can reasonably be expected to be angry if they feel like educational finance reforms force them to pay directly for the education of others.
Many nations today require service for all young adults. This generally comes in the form of conscription to the military, at least as a baseline, from which alternatives, should they exist, are derived. In nations such as Israel and South Korea, it is simply necessary for all citizens to serve in the military when they come of age. In Israel, though, only about 50% of conscripts actually serve, due to a variety of exemptions, and all Arab citizens are exempt from conscription. Also, in many countries, alternatives to military service exist, and are not only socially acceptable, but also come with benefits to the individual.
Switzerland is a shining example of this model. Conscription has been the norm in the nation for its entire history, though an alternative to military service has existed since 1996. Upon being drafted, persons can apply to join the civilian service, and then go to a hearing for the same purpose. Around ninety percent of those who go to hearings are accepted for civilian service. In that service, a variety of jobs exist, in such areas as health care, welfare, environmental protection, agriculture, research projects, and developmental assistance abroad. The wonderful thing about this service is that it is more than just service to the nation. The individual benefits as well by gaining experience in the area of choice.
In the United States, we need a system similar to Switzerland’s. Our military is a tremendous expense today, based upon a large standing army. The $711 billion dollars in the U.S. defense budget is more than the $695 billion that China, Russia, the U.K., France, Japan, India, Saudi Arabia, Germany, Brazil, Italy, South Korea, Australia, and Canada spend, combined. There have been periodic calls to scale the budget back, and though cuts are certainly coming with the dawning fiscal cliff, there has also always been the concern that scaling back our military would unacceptably reduce our nation’s readiness to face a sudden enemy. Conscription would be a wonderful alternative. As all citizens come of age, they are conscripted. They would be trained and then serve for a period of time in the armed forces as needed, followed by an additional few years of service in the reserve forces. In this way, our nation could have a huge pool of trained men and women ready to be called upon and put into service at short notice, so that we could safely reduce our level of active-duty professional soldiers.
This conscription should absolutely be tied to a national service system though. This system could include many of the areas that Switzerland’s service does, like service in health care, environmental protection, community service, and research projects. It could also include some of the programs that Singapore’s national service system does, with opportunities for adventure training, overseas trips, and service-learning projects in other nations. The wonderful thing about this sort of system would be the experience that young people would have the opportunity to glean before entering tertiary education. Those interested in science education would be able to work in labs on actual projects, environmental students would get to work towards preservation, and so on. Those that served in the military and in adventure training and the like would have the immeasurable benefit of leadership experience and mentoring. This would be a boon for those coming into adulthood, as they would finally be able to have the opportunities for enrichment that are quite hard to come across for so many in the country. In addition, in exchange for the service the would-be students provide, the government would be able to implement some sort of price control system for higher educational costs, along with a student loan system providing students with all the loans they need at interest rates tied purely to inflation.
In a uniquely American way, though, this system should teach responsibility, accountability, and maturity. It should do this by being run by the young adults themselves. Classes of graduating students in America contain thousands of great minds, motivated hands, and giving hearts. These people want to given the chance to lead and to grow, and they should be. The students themselves could be given the opportunity to work in the administration of this system, because there are a great deal of bright minds itching for an opportunity to help run a huge organization like our national service system would be.
It is very important that the students themselves run this organization. This is not only because of cost savings, but because this service system should absolutely provide intangible benefits to the students. They should be growing and learning, and the best leaders among them should be given the best opportunity to develop themselves, through leadership and management of the service system organization. In addition, it is important that this organization be a source of pride to all, which would be so much more so the case if it were a successful and self-running organization showcasing the talents and possibilities of the new generation of Americans.
This service should be tied to a combination of bold steps. The costs of higher education are billowing out of control and student debt is skyrocketing as well. The government should institute, for those American students who went through the national service system, a price ceiling on higher education, or at least a ceiling for the rate of education cost increases. This is, of course, a market distortion, but it is reasonable to see that higher education provides such an invaluable service, through the conference of degrees, that the higher education system as a whole is a virtual monopoly providing a necessary good. It is completely reasonable for higher education to be somewhat removed from the market system, as it represents a market failure.
The higher educational system is not even close to a competitive market due to the fact that length of existence and the degree-name recognition provide huge barriers to entry. Also, since a degree is so vital to economic success in modern America, it is not a very competitive market at all, since Americans are captive to the market. Since 1986, the cost of tuition has increased by 498.31% while inflation has only increased by 115.06%.
The government should also provide student loans to those students who have been trained. The loan system would be excellent for the government, allowing it to incentivize the sorts of educations that our economy needs. Loans with interest rates purely tied to inflation could be given to those students who enter into educational paths whose graduates are in high demand, so that the government could help get our economy more engineers, more nurses, and more high-demand professionals with more bearable debt loads.
It is true that costs would be added to the country through this system. It is a tough thing to advocate in our debt-hawk media environment, but it is doable and it is necessary. Those who chose to join the military would mostly have their salaries and training costs offset by the reductions in active-duty soldiers. The other programs would probably be relatively low-cost, do to the private-public partnerships and values created by student labor, including services like firefighting, emergency medical services, and other services. Those costs are also warranted, because students will gain the valuable training that they just are not getting today. Students will enter college and beyond with skills and experience that they need to thrive and be competitive in the global marketplace.
Our higher education system needs bold steps to move it forward, but most importantly, our students need a leg up in actual experience, training, and maturity. Financial assistance to our struggling students can and must be tied to a national service system to help our graduates mature to young adults, so that they can thrive and expand their unique and diverse skill sets as they move forward to become a new and great generation.
Overall, the takeaways of this idea are rather simple. Educational costs are out of control. According to the Delta Cost Project’s Trends in College Spending study, costs of education in terms of tuition and amount of money spent on actual education differ significantly. Tuition never covers the cost of education but the cost born by students, in the form of tuition increases, itself increases in times of economic trouble for nation, when better education is most sorely needed.
This article mainly discusses how costs of education are a problem, and how we could have lower student loan rates and better training in a variety of areas if a national service system were to be implemented. However, what is a clear trend is that universities have not been good at spending their money. The cost of colleges has run away far beyond inflation, and the aforementioned study shows that the additional costs are not going into spending on student education. Where is this money going? What can be seen is that the market has failed Americans in higher education, and this needs to be rectified. If the nation’s youth will provide it with service, and gain invaluable experience, then cost controls and a deep investigation into the financing of universities are absolutely called for, as so much public money is spent upon such universities that their cost effectiveness must be questioned as well. Students today are beginning to wonder whether a tertiary education is even worth its cost. Surely financial reform is called for to combat this growing sentiment in a country where educational attainment lags significantly behind other nations of the developed world. It is a bold request, but cost controls are necessary, and extremely possible, given a national service system, an improved loan system, and a push for greater cost transparency and cost effectiveness among universities.
Photo Credit: University Communications – Web via Flickr