We take it for granted, but the fact that so many school leavers routinely go on to study in university is a relatively recent development. Back in 1900, it’s estimated that there were just half a million students in higher education around the world. By 2010, Unesco estimates the figure stood at around 177 million.
Few countries did more to pioneer the expansion of higher education than the United States, and today its finest colleges and universities have a global reputation. Among OECD countries, only three – Canada, Israel and Japan – can boast a higher proportion of graduates among their total adult populations than the U.S.
But dig a little deeper, and you’ll spot an interesting trend: among younger adults (25-to-34 years old), the U.S. slips to just 14th place among OECD countries for the proportion of graduates in that age group. Also worth noting: there’s very little difference – just a single percentage point – between graduation rates of the total population (41%) and the younger age group (42%).
The implication is clear. In most OECD countries, younger people tend to be better educated than older ones, but in the U.S., as the BBC reported, that’s less and less the case. “It’s something of great significance because much of today’s economic power of the United States rests on a very high degree of adult skills – and that is now at risk,” commented the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher.
So why does the U.S.’s long love affair with higher education seem to be running out of steam? In a word, money. Tuition and fees for a four-year degree at a public university are now at least 3½ times higher than they were 30 years ago. Over the same period, the strong growth in income that American middle class families enjoyed in the post-war era slowed markedly. The result, in part, has been a rise in student debt, which is now reckoned to top a trillion dollars. As one academic wrote in The Atlantic, “Even for the academically inclined, the value of college in this economic climate is increasingly subject to question.”
Is college still worth it? The answer for most people is yes. On average, university graduates in OECD countries earn 55% more than non-graduates, and the figure for the U.S. is over 80%. So, university still pays, but communicating that message can be difficult. Seeing a neighbour or a cousin struggling with student debt is likely to register much more strongly with a prospective student than a statistical average.
Other social and cultural influences may also be at work. As The New York Times reported, the stories of billionaire college dropouts like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg seem to have struck a chord. “It’s inspiring that [Jobs’] dropping out basically had no effect, positive or negative, on the work and company and values he could create,” said Benjamin Goering, who quit college early to work for an Internet start-up.
But the 22-year-old also said something that may point to a changing attitude among his generation towards higher education: “Education isn’t a four-year program. It’s a mind-set.” The idea that there might be viable alternatives to trotting off to university for three or four years seems to be gaining ground, and that may be due in part to the growth in MOOCs – Massive Open Online Courses, or, as Forbes described them, “free online college courses, designed by academic rock stars and ‘attended’ by hundreds of thousands of students from around the world”.
Like much that happens online, MOOCs may be the victims of “irrational exuberance”. While many have enrollment figures that justify “massive,” that’s not always true of their completion rates. Nevertheless, their growth is impressive. One operator, Coursera www.coursera.org, now has 2.4 million students on its books, according to Thomas Friedman, and is drawing students from all over the world, including from developing countries.
And that, perhaps, is what’s most interesting about this phenomenon. At a time when full time education may be slipping beyond the grasp of some students in wealthy countries, while remaining stubbornly out of reach in poorer countries, MOOCs may offer an alternative and, argue some, a glimpse into where higher education goes next.