Adams: US higher education might be a bubble about to burst

Is U.S. higher education a bubble about to burst, like the housing bubble burst that triggered the 2007-2008 financial crisis? That strong possibility is now evident. It should seriously concern those choosing a college. One surely does not want their degree from a college that subsequently goes bankrupt, like Burlington College in Vermont, for example. Here are the root causes of the potential bubble burst.

First: Skyrocketing costs are leading to high debt burdens on students and families.

Second: Soft job markets for many college major degree programs now often make repayment of student loans a virtually never-ending way of life.

Third: Widespread budget cutting by many state governments for their colleges, combined with enormous debts accumulated by many state and private colleges.

Fourth: The unbelievably top-heavy administrations that have evolved within both state and private universities are shameful—vice presidents of all kinds, provosts, associate provosts, assistant provosts, deans, associate deans, assistant deans, more deans and even “deanlets.” That is to say nothing about university presidents’ annual salaries, of which many now exceed $1 million, not including their lucrative housing, travel and retirement benefits.

Fifth: It is common knowledge nationally among academics that at some colleges the only metrics increasing faster than the skyrocketing tuitions are both the average number of students in many classrooms and the number of part-time low-paid adjunct teaching faculty.

Sixth: It is well known among college-donation fundraisers that the era of heavy donors is fast tapering off because the millennials, many with large education loan debts, are not making donations to their alma maters nearly to the extent that their predecessors have.

Where does the buck “stop?” Of course it stops with the schools’ Boards of Trustees or Boards of Regents. Among college boards it is common knowledge that with few exceptions, board members are usually made up of business-world heavyweights, some politicians and of course heavy donors. Board members, usually quite busy in their own work activities, most often delegate the day-to-day running of schools to the highly paid upper administrators they hire. Clearly, that outdated business model is not performing well for the true stakeholders: students and their families.

U.S. higher education is at a major crossroad precipitated by an outdated and flawed business model, leading many students to debts that will take them many years to repay. When students default on their loans, not only are loan-cosigning parents getting burned, but grandparent loan cosigners heading into retirement have likewise fallen prey. College loan indebtedness now prevents many young adults from obtaining home mortgages, and if in-loan default prevents them from obtaining auto purchase loans. Pure and simple, it’s a mess that must be fixed.

The U.S. higher education problems root causes are now painfully clear. The question, therefore, is how to cost-effectively eliminate the root causes. That will happen either by creative and intelligent intervention or simply by the “force of nature” as many colleges go broke and get replaced by a new and successfully functional way of doing business. In the interim, many college students and their families will continue to bear the costly burden. When assessing the “right” college to choose, the writer recommends that students include the financial health of institutions under consideration, to avoid getting their degree from a college that subsequently goes bankrupt.