Educating the Future: The End of Mediocrity: Students Facing Uncertain Future Opportunities (but Very Certain Debt Loads) May Increasingly Turn Away from Private Colleges and Universities That Offer Little More Than a Diploma. Instead, They'll Seek More-Affordable Alternatives for Higher Education, Both Real and Virtual

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0n May 18, 2012, the president of Chester College in Chester, New Hampshire, announced that the small, arts-oriented college was going to close for good at the end of the semester. Last-ditch fundraising efforts and finger-pointing at the school's administration were natural parts of the school's final days as the reality of poor finances and low enrollment finally took its toll. Nearby colleges of similar educational types graciously (but eagerly) welcomed Chester's student transfers, generously offering the same tuition, board, and fees as the closing college.

I do not intend to cast aspersions toward the academic quality of Chester. It would take more than some second-guessing to properly assess all the factors that led to the closing. However, in most cases (and it appears to be the case with Chester College), the biggest obstacle to overcome is financial. Being cash-poor and deep in debt is harder to cure than creating an academic revival.

The lack of both short-term and long-term financial sustainability has become pervasive in the ranks of small colleges. Mediocrity that is related to poor finances is very difficult to overcome. In many other situations, the mediocrity is truly academic, and that aspect puts those schools at a competitive disadvantage in the current environment. Either or both types of mediocrity threaten the existence of hundreds of private colleges across the United States. But since the onset of the economic slowdown five years ago, the weak signals that were emerging have become full-blown trends that will soon have huge ramifications for higher education throughout the country.

Mobilizing Growth through Education

America found its growth hormone after the Second World War in the incredible educational success of the GI Bill. Young men (mostly) who, prior to the war, would have had little interest in or ability to go to college now were given the opportunity. Colleges swelled with millions of new students--and college graduates.

Throughout the heyday of the industrial growth from the end of World War II until about the year 2000, young people were admonished to earn the highest possible diploma commensurate with their standing in life. And somehow it all seemed to work. Companies could rely on the abilities of sharp highschool grads to fulfill most industrial functions. Those who needed tedini-cal training to perform a task went to the local technical institute or community college. Those who wanted to climb the ladder of success went to night school. As the United States was in an ascending mode of perceived eternal growth, there seemed to be plenty of room for any college graduate to enter the workforce--the type of degree of little conse-quence--and do no worse than become a management trainee or sales trainee as the economy boomed. The world made sense. All was well.

The notion that a college degree affords its possessor a great future, "the good life," thus became institutionalized. Potential workers have been told for generations: "You must get a college degree to succeed." So that is what they have done. The college degree was the universally accepted clear path to success.

Then, around 2000, several trends came together to give us the situation we have today.

The first trend is generalized and somewhat anecdotal. A common refrain among many employers is that they are frustrated with the college graduates they hire not having the exact pool of knowledge to contribute immediately. The quality of the applicants just doesn't seem to measure up to their existing personnel--or at least not up to the companies' expectations. The "quality" of the education must not be as good, they argue; the colleges are out of touch with the marketplace.

The second trend that has emerged is the proliferation of online college education. Phoenix University, DeVry, Capella University, and others have taken advantage of the convenience of online learning and, again, the institutionalized thinking that a college degree--any college degree--is the ticket to prosperity. …