20.2.11

THE FRUITS OF ACCESS-ASSESSMENT-REMEDIATION-RETENTION.  Universal college: triggering a revolution of rising expectations?
Would you like your college education to be free? Sure, who wouldn't? Well, the people of Tunisia and Egypt are learning that whenever the government supplies something, it is never really "free."
In Tunisia, "free" university education is guaranteed to anyone who passes the government's exams at the end of high school. Largely as a result of this, the number of Tunisians who graduated college more than tripled in the last ten years. This may sound like a good thing, but it has produced a glut of graduates.
Fifty-Seven percent of young Tunisians entering the labor market are college educated. This is while only 30 percent of Americans earn a college degree by the time they are 27. Recent Tunisian college grads have an unemployment rate approximately three times higher than the national average of 15 percent. This is up ninefold from 1994.
The reason for this is not necessarily because having a college education hinders people in getting a job, but because so many college grads are entering the labor market at a time when there are few jobs.
There's no shortage of work in North Africa; a shortage of opportunities to deploy the human capital higher education led young people to believe they were developing, whether because of rigidities in the ruling class, civil society given to corruption rather than transparency, or the legacies of Islamic rigidity means ambition collides, harshly, with reality.
We, in America, might not be as far away from the problems of Tunisia and Egypt as some may be inclined to think.
From 1997 to 2007, full-time enrollment in US tertiary education increased 34 percent. The average college student graduates with $24,000 in debt, a 40 percent real increase from 1997. In 2008, only57 percent of students enrolled in a four year college graduated within six years. The unemployment rate for 16 to 24-year-olds is 52 percent. The underemployed as a group may be as large as the unemployed in America. For example, in 1970 only 3 percent of mail carriers had a bachelor's degree, while today the number is 12 percent.
Although our case may not be as extreme as that of Tunisia or Egypt, we are headed in the same direction. And just like in Tunisia and Egypt, our education bubble is fueled by governmental policy.
Government accreditation laws keep potential institutions of higher education out of the market, which allows the institutions already in the market to raise their prices. Accreditation institutions can also force institutions of higher education to make changes that increase costs.
The saving grace, at least during periods of economic expansion, is that employers complain there are insufficient skilled workers to fill their more demanding positions (there are gains from trade for somebody to exploit, including employers that recognize the labor-leisure tradeoff), and that complaint maps in some approximate way into excess demand for institutions that maintain a semblance of academic standards.  Apparently, although college may be the new high school in the United States, the post suggests that college is the new junior high in Egypt and Tunisia.

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