Guest column: Dave Trecker ... Is college worth the big bucks?

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Is college worth the big bucks?

There’s no shortage of hand-wringing about higher education these days.

We get it online, in print and on television. It’s almost a cottage industry.

Here’s a recent sampling.

A Gallup study showed that 40 percent of today’s college graduates are doing work that requires no college degree. More college graduates are working in retail than there are soldiers in the U.S. Army. Over 15 percent of taxi drivers have college degrees. The conclusion: A university education may no longer be worth the expense.

The match of graduates to jobs remains a problem. Well-paying engineering and computer jobs go unfilled because there aren’t enough science and math majors. Locally we’re doing our bit. The Collier County schools have emphasized STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) readiness, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott is urging state colleges to offer incentives for STEM majors. But it will take years before any of this has an impact.

Then there are the students themselves. In a devastating piece in The Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey Collier, a professor at a South Carolina school, portrayed college students — at least a good many of them — as lazy, undisciplined and coddled, feeling entitled to high grades with a minimum of work.

College, he says, is little more than a “four-year party.” And the faculty plays along to keep their jobs. Collier says the teachers have no incentive to demand real learning, since failing students lead to lower enrollment, which in turn requires fewer teachers.

Poor high-school preparation is another issue. Tom Barton, president of the American Chemical Society, decries the quality of K-12 education in this country. Writing in Chemical and Engineering News, he lists the causes: lack of parental interest, short school years, political intrusion, teachers’ unions that focus on seniority instead of performance.

And college expenses have become debilitating. With enrollments down and universities competing by building resort-type campuses, the spend-and-recoup cycle is out of control. (My oldest granddaughter, a high school senior this year, is looking at annual college costs of $45,000 to $55,000.) Heavy debt after graduation is a given. The certainty of a job is not.

To distribute the load, some schools are trying the Robin Hood approach — offering tuition subsidies, where so-called rich students pay full freight to subsidize the poor. A Wall Street Journal survey found that ten state universities transferred $512 million from full-cost enrollees to less-well-off classmates in 2012-13.

Everywhere schools are scrambling and vamping.

But there’s also some good news.

A survey by Illinois State University showed that 40 states increased funding for higher education last year, reversing a long downward trend. One of the biggest gains came in Florida.

And we still have the best of the best. Seven of the universities recently rated among the top ten in the world are U.S. schools.

Plus, our innovation index — patents and publications — is second to none.

And we continue to draw foreign students in droves. Everyone, it seems, wants to study here.

The fact is, despite the many problems, we still have the best university system in the world.

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