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Make college worth the cost

Colleges and universities charge too much, deliver too little and channel too many students into a lifetime of debt. Genuine reform must be brought to bear to curb those abuses.

College graduates still earn more and are unemployed less often. However, with so many recent graduates serving cappuccino and treading water in unpaid internships, a four-year diploma is not quite the solid investment it once was, and it should not be so often viewed as such a necessity by society.

Since 2007-2008, the average pay for recent four-year graduates has fallen nearly 5 percent, while the average earnings of a typical American worker, as tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is up 10 percent.

Graduates in high-demand disciplines can still earn good starting salaries and expect rising earnings as experience grows, but in many majors they increasingly face market conditions that have bedeviled skilled manufacturing workers for decades: too many folks chasing too few jobs.

Academics tend to see a university education idealistically — cultivating critical thinking and facilitating a satisfying life — but most middle-class families view the situation in more practical terms. For them, a diploma is a capital investment often purchased at extortive prices.

Over several decades, Americans have become convinced that many jobs require a college education which, when evaluated in terms of their objective skill requirements, shouldn't. Convenience restaurant managers and cellphone salespeople don't need an education in literature, math and politics beyond what a decent high school education imparts. Yet, employers often press for several years of college or a degree — because college graduates are cheap and plentiful — but still end up training new hires in rudiments of hospitality management, operating systems and the like.

The result is that too many young people are pressured into a costly education they don't need and for which they may be ill-prepared. And universities, enjoying such a captive market, have over-expanded, acceded to faculty demands for light teaching loads, layered on costly bureaucracies, and unconscionably raised the cost of college to beyond what it frequently is worth to students and society as a whole.

Outstanding student loans now exceed $1 trillion, with 1 in 6 in default — a ratio that will likely grow.

Unlike loans taken to capitalize a small business or buy a house, student loans are not dischargeable in bankruptcy, and stories abound of folks in their 40s and 50s still saddled with onerous debt and the elderly with garnisheed Social Security benefits.

Colleges and universities often fail to furnish families with all the information necessary to make sound choices — including the probability a student will complete a degree in four years; the full cost of completing a degree; and likely salaries and prospects for repaying loans, especially according to major and for students who only attend a few years and do not complete a degree.

Too often, university presidents are like the bankers who wrote bad mortgages during the housing boom: They admit students, facilitate lots of borrowing, and pay themselves well but don't have much skin in the game.

For their students to qualify for both government-sponsored and private bank loans, universities should be compelled to provide audited information about the likely time required and cost of obtaining degrees in various majors; salaries graduates earn the first years after graduation, and the resulting repayment burdens; and similar data for those who attend less than four years. Like CEOs of corporations who must now attest to the accuracy of financial statements, university presidents should be required to do the same, and be subject to similar legal penalties for failure.

Student loans should be dischargeable in bankruptcy when these investments don't work out; otherwise, we will continue to create debtors for life. And universities should be on the hook for a significant share of defaulted loans — perhaps, 25 percent to 50 percent.

Well-run institutions would get their costs and tuition under control, seriously evaluate and become transparent about the prospects for a decent-paying job after majoring in art history as opposed to mechanical engineering, and have little problem lining up private investors to insure their share of prospective default liabilities.

Schools that take students' money and deliver too little for it would go the way of Circuit City or the St. Louis Browns, and stop blighting the futures of young people.

Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, is a widely published columnist. Email: pmorici@rhsmith.umd.edu. Twitter: @pmorici1.

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