Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Do we need a revolution in higher education?

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
updated 3:44 PM EDT, Wed June 13, 2012
More than half of recent college graduates are underemployed or jobless.
More than half of recent college graduates are underemployed or jobless.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • William Bennett: Despite costly tuition, most students still desire to go to college
  • Bennett: In purely financial terms, they might be better off investing in stocks
  • He says a college degree does not hold the status and significance it once did
  • Bennett: Technology challenges traditional models of colleges, could change everything

Editor's note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of "The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood." He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- In spite of ever rising tuition and ballooning student loan debts, a large majority of students still desire to attend college. Traditional notions are deeply engrained in the public's mind. College is considered the path to a better, higher paying job, the best way to make connections and propel a career, and a status symbol, especially for those who go to elite universities.

However, given the dismal reality facing college graduates, perhaps the future of higher education will have to change.

In some cases, a college diploma may no longer guarantee the high potential lifetime earnings it once did. An online salary ranking system called PayScale.com calculates a student's 30-year return on investment at the top 1,300 colleges nationwide based on average alumni salary and tuition costs. Their recently issued 2012 report suggests that out of the 4,500 colleges and universities in the nation only the top 800 to 850 give you an annual return on investment greater than 4%. In pure financial terms, students might be better off investing their tuition money in stocks rather than four years with one of our nation's many colleges.

William Bennett
William Bennett

But this does not stop an overwhelming number of students from paying an exorbitant amount of money or taking on huge amounts of debt in order to attend college. It seems like such conventional wisdom. "A diploma wasn't a piece of paper. It was an amulet," as columnist Frank Bruni wrote in the New York Times. That may no longer be the case.

A college degree does not hold the status and significance it once did. Recent data from the Census Bureau and Department of Labor found that almost 54% of recent graduates were unemployed or underemployed. As our world becomes more globally integrated and competitive, economic status now turns on many other things, like intellectual capital and skills training, things which colleges are supposed to instill, but many don't.

According to a recent world economic study, about 10 million manufacturing jobs worldwide are going begging because of a lack of skilled workers. In the United States alone, at least 600,000 manufacturing jobs cannot be filled. Meanwhile, legions of arts and humanities majors occupy the unemployment rolls. Many students are ill prepared for the labor market, whether by fault of their own or by colleges and universities that are out of sync with the needs of a skilled work force.

However, technology may just transform everything. Better, smarter, more adaptable and cheaper education will soon be available to all. Initiatives like the ED-X partnership between Harvard and MIT promise to give non-traditional students elements of a world-class education online, and for free. Coursera, recently founded by Stanford professor Andrew Ng, will offer not only free online courses, but also a great deal of individualized instruction in the form of grading, testing, student-to-student help and certificates of completion. What Salman Khan and his Khan Academy did for elementary and secondary education, offering world-class instruction online for free, will soon be replicated throughout academia. These new ventures will no doubt challenge the traditional four-year residential, physical university model.

In the future, access to college may be nearly universal, with little or no tuition costs. We may be on the cusp of a higher education revolution. College may look very different 20, 10, or even five years from now.

In the meantime, the national and kitchen table conversation over higher education should no longer be looked at in the isolation of student loans. It's time for parents and students to look at the entire enterprise of higher education and ask -- how, when, where, for whom, in what studies and at what cost is a college education appropriate?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT