Volume VII, #14
Most great comedies are premised on a major problem that the heroes try to solve. In The Blues Brothers, Jake and Elwood must raise enough money to save the orphanage where they were raised. Airplane requires an Air Force veteran who’s sworn off flying to land a 747. Typically, the problem reflects a contemporary insecurity – about the decline of organized religion and the social safety net, or airline crashes (or more likely at the time, bad airplane disaster movies).
In the new Will Ferrell/Amy Poehler film, The House, the problem is American families’ greatest current insecurity. Ferrell and Poehler’s daughter Alex, who is attending a loosely disguised Bucknell, has lost her scholarship. As a result, mom and dad are forced to come to terms with the list price: “It’s $50 million!” Ferrell mistakenly exclaims when he sees the tuition bill. Desperate to raise the cash to keep their daughter in school, they open an illegal casino in a residential neighborhood – their only chance of making four years tuition in one month.
When there's a Hollywood comedy about the outlandish cost of college, it's a sign that affordability has gone from being a consideration or constraint to the first thing everyone except the wealthiest families thinks about when they think about college. As NPR reported this week, in the early 1980s it was possible for students to work their way through college. The average cost to attend a public university was $2,870. Families qualifying for Pell Grants would have had a net bill of $1,000, or 16 hours a week at the minimum wage. Today the gap between the average cost of public university and Pell has multiplied 14x – an unbridgeable gap. The resulting insecurity is also reflected in a new poll that found 70% of Millennials believe the student loan crisis is a “bigger problem” for the United States than North Korea.
Just as the era of “strategic patience” with North Korea seems to have come to an end, The House indicates the same is true with American families’ acceptance of the cost of college. The financial pressure is simply too great to be sustained.
In The House, the cost-of-college-induced mini-mansion casino degenerates into predictable Farrell and Poehler fare, like a “fight club” amongst neighbors and chopping off appendages of cheating gamblers. “I’m not going to tell my daughter she can’t go to college,” says Ferrell. “So we resorted to a life of crime.” Now anyone who uses the phrase "fun fact" probably has a loose definition of the word fun. So regular readers won’t be surprised that I have a fun fact for you: most people won’t resort to crime in response to the crisis of college affordability. Instead, if a 529 plan doesn’t solve the problem (Inside Higher Education’s suggestion), many students and families will follow a different example from the world of entertainment.
In the recent NBA Draft nine of the top 10 picks were freshmen who decided they were done with college after one year (so-called “One-and-Done”). Despite the social importance and status of college and despite their free ride, college fell by the wayside as a result of the significant (positive) financial pressure of expected future earnings from professional basketball.
Contrast elite student athletes with other elite students. While the most talented and motivated student athletes who expect to make millions in their careers are looking for the quickest path through college, until now, other talented and motivated students have not. In fact, shorter paths through higher education have traditionally been associated with less talented and motivated students who pursue sub-baccalaureate credentials.
Why the difference? One possible explanation is it’s easier to see and measure basketball talent than aptitude for creating value in other areas. Another is because there’s a system that allows employers to watch closely.
But this is starting to change in other high-value areas where top employees may be an order of magnitude more productive. In technology, GitHub has become the standard platform for showcasing code to potential employers. In finance, students are using EquitySim to demonstrate trading and portfolio management skills to investment banks and hedge funds. Across a wide range of dynamic sectors of the economy, students are uploading papers, presentations and problem sets to Portfolium to demonstrate value-creating capabilities. And micro-credentials from Credly are allowing employers to find exactly the competencies they’re seeking. At the same time, employer-connected bootcamps and other Last Mile Training providers are establishing a better system for employers to watch closely.
All 18 million students enrolled in our colleges and universities are betting on a simple equation: value from college > annual cost x time in college. But two of these variables are heading in the wrong direction: annual cost continues to increase and value appears to be declining. According to a research note from Goldman Sachs, the return on college is falling. “In 2010, students could expect to break even within eight years of finishing school. Since then, that has increased to nine years. And if this trend continues, students who start college in 2030 without scholarships or grants... may not see a return on investment until age 37.”
For many families, the obvious answer will be to adjust the remaining variable in the equation: time in college. This is clear from the push for accelerated three-year degree programs. It’s evident from the emergence of “college drop out” as an anti-credential that some talented and motivated students are literally wearing with pride, and equally from the fact that between 50-70% of dropouts are for financial reasons. And it was obvious from the fact that many of the nearly 5,000 applicants for the 30 available slots in MissionU’s first cohort were freshmen and sophomores at elite universities who found MissionU’s 12-month program leading to a good first job in business analytics more appealing than another 2-3 years of college with an uncertain outcome.
According to the New York Times, The House “examines some of the worst aspects of modern American life.” Fundamentally, the film demonstrates that under financial pressure, “we’re not nice people.” That’s happened in basketball. It’s not nice that students are leaving college at the age of 19. But under financial pressure, niceties like college are discarded.
Defenders of the status quo will respond that college is not merely nice, it’s a must-have for long-term success. As Brookings noted in late June in the context of the coming apprenticeship tsunami, “early employment gains with vocational training may lead to later problems when specific skills become obsolete and workers lack the ability to adjust to a changed economic environment.” But even if this is 100% correct, understanding and acting upon it requires long-term thinking. And what higher education leaders need to understand is that when the financial pressure is high enough, only the wealthiest families can afford to think long term.
With the threat of default hanging over their heads, rather than waiting for the right job many new graduates (and drop outs) have been forced to take the first job that allows them to make student loan payments. That’s short-term thinking. There’s no reason to believe similar thinking won’t begin showing up earlier in students’ decision processes e.g., application and enrollment. Or in the decision by many of our ablest and best students to follow their basketball brethren and pursue a path of “One-and-Done.”
The college affordability crisis is an American tragedy. And judging by audience response to The House (opening of only $9M from 3,134 screens), following another time equation – Comedy = Tragedy + Time – there’s at least one aspect of the college affordability crisis that will require more time, not less.