Concerning Commonwealth Colleges

I have been blogging over the past few months on the generally worrisome state of US colleges and on policy remedies that might address the sector’s runaway costs, sagging student outcomes, and insularity.

College remains a topic of enormous daily importance to us here at Match Education since we send graduates from our high school to college every spring and since we recently started Match Beyond, our own college and jobs program for young adults from greater Boston.

Sticking to the college theme, I will take a close look in this blog at the college scene here in the Commonwealth.

The body of this blog consists of 25 data tables.  Each table makes a few empirical points, and the tables in their entirety tell a startling story.

College 101: A Call for New Colleges (Part 5 of 5)

Unless higher education policy changes sharply, the college establishment is likely to carry on as I have described it in this blog series — protected (via accreditation and law) from competition and in full command of public aid, prices, and enrollment.

We need strong and fundamental policy reform of higher education. 

And it should come, in my opinion, in the form of a substantial, tightly regulated move by Congress and the US Department of Education to allow new organizations into the college sector.

Specifically, we need public policy that permits high-quality non-profits focused on economic mobility and real-world operating companies in need of well-trained employees to take a run at college in novel ways.

These new entrants should have access to existing public funding for higher education in exchange for merciless accountability for outcomes, in particular the graduation and job placement rates of their students.

With new entry – and only with new entry – might we get the level of innovation, cost control, and quality improvement that we need in higher education.

College 101: Outcomes in the College Establishment (Part 4 of 5)

In Part 4 of this blog series, I will cover one last unnerving sub-plot in the story of US colleges.

A small and unchanging set of incumbent US colleges not only control enrollment (Part 2) and large public subsidies (Part 3). They also dodge accountability.

Little data on college outcomes is collected or published by colleges themselves, by the governments that fund them, or by the accreditation agencies that protect them.

And what good data is available – on graduation rates, on employers’ view of the job readiness of graduates, and on students’ self-reported satisfaction with college – is discouraging.

College 101: Government Subsidies and College Price Inflation (Part 3 of 5)

That college enrollment in US has sky-rocketed over the last 50 years and accrued almost exclusively to small, unchanging set of 3,200 colleges (see Part 2 of this blog series) is just the first head-scratcher in the story of US colleges.

A second worrisome head-turner, one that I will cover here, is the price of college. 

College is one of the most subsidized goods in our society. Federal and state subsidies to colleges total approximately $200 billion annually. These large subsidies include public aid directly to colleges, as well as public aid to students (in the form of student grants, notably the Pell Grant, and in the form of government-backed college loans). 

The main beneficiary of this public money is the college establishment (the existing universe of 3,200 institutions) since it has the sole right (given accreditation rules and related regulations) to collect tuition payments that rely on Pell grants, government subsidized college loans, and other forms of public financial aid.

From their sole position as eventual recipients of public aid for higher education, accredited colleges have raised their prices consistently and substantially for decades. For example, college revenues – fueled by public subsidies and related price increases by incumbent colleges – have grown at 7% per year for the last 25 years.

Caught in this inflationary cycle (i.e. a cycle where the government increases aid and the college establishment raises price) are students and families who increasingly deplete household income and take out large loans to meet the ever-rising price of college. Another vulnerable party in this cycle is our government, which constantly issues college-related debt marked by hard-to-predict long-term default rates.

College 101: Soaring Student Enrollment in a Fixed Set of Accredited Colleges (Part 2 of 5)

In the second part of my 5-part series on US colleges, I make the following point: college enrollment in the US has soared over the last 50 years, and a nearly finite set of colleges have sponged up the growth, free of new entrants.

Specifically, college enrollment in the United States has exploded over the last half century, up from about 4 million students in the late 1950s to more than 20 million students today. 65% of US high school graduates now enroll in college.

College enrollment growth has been driven partly by a large increase in the number of high school graduates in the US and partly by large public subsidies for higher education.

That college is increasingly common in American society is generally good news. Going to college is – or at least, should be – a recipe for all kinds of good outcomes for students and society. 

But there is a glaring oddity in the college expansion story of the last 50 years.

Namely, for the last several decades, college enrollment growth has been monopolized by a nearly finite set of about 3,200 incumbent colleges that have accounted for 90-98% of college enrollment.  These incumbents are approved in state law and have status as accredited institutions -- a status that grants them unique access to large public subsidies puts them in almost sole control of enrollment.

College 101: The Syllabus (Part 1 of 5)

From our charter school here in Boston, we have sent 11 classes of high school graduates to college since we first opened our doors in 2000. We work hard in our high school to find good colleges for our students – colleges where they can earn a quality degree, at an affordable price -- and we continue to believe profoundly in college as a pathway to economic safety for our students.

But, in interacting the US college sector over the last decade, we have witnessed firsthand the uneven quality and skyrocketing costs of the US college sector. We now worry about its general state...