Orange warning lights are blinking for American colleges and universities — a potential reversal of fortune of particular importance to the Rhode Island economy and its growth.
The mammoth American higher education enterprise, widely believed to be the best and certainly the richest in the world, faces four evolving, major crises:
-Inflation of product cost.
-Deflation of product value.
-Enablement of social and moral dissolution.
-Lower-priced, knockoff and fraudulent competition.
This is particularly bad news for Rhode Island, home to a diverse concentration of 13 higher education institutions, including some of the nation\’s most important. The Rhode Island higher education consortium is the state\’s second largest industry and is a major marketing card in attracting new business to the state.
The annual cost of a top college undergraduate education in 1950 including room and board was around $1,000 — $9,800 in 2015 dollars. By last year, it was more than $50,000. According to Pew Research Center surveys, about 75 percent of U.S. adults believe that it is overpriced.
The curriculum since 1950 has been greatly enriched and expanded. However, despite the vast buffet of course offerings, from the most technical to the most politically correct and marginal, only 43 percent think a college education is “good value.”
At the same time, many American college campuses have become noted for anything-goes sexual morality, binge drinking, drugs and dysfunctional behavior. That casts an alarming shadow on the idea that colleges produce educated men and women of character.
As a result of these developments, the marketplace has increasingly responded, as always, with cheaper and easier alternatives — some of true value, some fancy but fraudulent.
On the plus side are the degree offerings of online universities, targeted Internet courses by high-ranking professors, various hybrid experiments and new, lower-cost institutions — all subject to praise, criticism and final judgment on their effectiveness.
On the negative side are inventive criminal exploiters who are selling fabulous-looking degrees from papier mache colleges created by diploma manufacturers such as Axact in Pakistan. The New York Times reports that Axact successfully peddles a portfolio of degrees through dozens of fraudulent college websites to a multimillion-dollar global market.
None of this should be surprising to students of business colleges’ basic case histories. Any corporation with an undervalued, overpriced product will sooner or later be in trouble, particularly if it enables its customers to engage in questionable behavior and cynically to believe that all they need to succeed is a well-designed diploma.
Fortunately, some leaders of higher education have taken note of these coming crises and are seeking new, innovative solutions. But many find it easier to float with the trend.
Those prone to act can take encouragement by recalling the legend that Henry David Thoreau, an 1837 Harvard graduate, didn’t think it worthwhile to travel 14 miles from Concord to return to Cambridge to pick up his degree. As he is said to have explained to his neighbor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, he already had everything of value that Harvard could give him.