Dr Ephraim Buhks is the Director of ORT United States Operations. In this interview post, he outlines his thoughts on:
- the changing landscape of higher education in the USA
- the challenges that this presents
- how ORT colleges, both in the USA and worldwide, are well positioned to respond to these challenges
Could you provide some background to the current state of higher education in the USA?
There are approximately 6,700 higher education institutions in the USA. These institutions enjoy a significant amount of teaching flexibility, because they are not subject to any national education standards. However, if institutions wish their students to be able to receive government-sponsored financial aid, they must have accreditation – which is awarded by non-governmental agencies. Gaining accreditation is a very tough process: it can take 5 years for an institution to satisfy the 12 or so standards that are laid out. These standards include school management, instructor credentials, curriculum development and facilities. This accreditation system creates a hugely competitive environment and forces institutions to specialize by targeting specific student populations.
Annual tuition costs are high – $25,000 on average. If you factor in accommodation, textbooks and laptops, costs are pushing $50,000. Clearly, families face great difficulties in finding this money. Many students work alongside their study. Parents and students take out large loans, which can amount to $0.5 million if you count graduate school. So student debt is very high, whilst at the same time, educational and employment outcomes are not very high. Only half of students taking a bachelor degree complete it within six years (the normal duration should be four years). The graduation rate at the largest state universities is even lower – around one third. And even if students do successfully graduate, they are finding it more and more difficult to find jobs. The unemployment rate for recently graduated students is close to 50%. Those who do secure employment will get paid at one third of what they could have expected five years ago.
Why are students graduating from US universities today finding it so difficult to find jobs?
There are three main reasons to account for this. The first is the recession – economies worldwide are not generating a sufficient number of job openings. The second is globalization – the increasingly global competition for jobs in the USA means that even entry-level graduate positions are attracting well-trained professionals with practical work experience. US graduates are doubly disadvantaged because they are receiving the wrong kind of education to make them employable – and this is the third reason.
Traditionally, the US model of higher education is based on a European liberal arts education. Students can actually spend more than half of their course studying subject areas unrelated to their major subject. The argument is that this system creates well-rounded individuals with well-developed critical thinking skills. It certainly employs a large number of History, English and Philosophy professors who encourage their students to discover themselves and follow their dreams. The problem with this is that there is no focus on job skills. Moreover, vocational training was practically eliminated from all college curricula, in favour of giving equal opportunities to all students in pursuing a liberal arts education. In the past, successful US companies would hire liberal arts graduates and put them on corporate training schemes for sales, marketing and banking positions. Not today – they cannot afford to, and anyway they have access to a globalized labour market.
So this is the major political, economic and social issue which we will face for many years to come: the role of higher education in skills training, job creation and maintaining the US as a competitive player in the global economy.
What other trends are emerging in higher education in the USA?
- Study abroad has become a major development. US colleges and universities have rushed to sign course exchange agreements with institutions overseas. Students now frequently spend a semester or a whole year studying abroad – based on the notion that a global economy puts international study and work experience at a premium. In addition, major US universities have opened campuses overseas – for example New York University in Bahrain. However, these expansions have not always been economically successful, given that the universities in question must compete with the low tuition costs of state-subsidized national institutions already set up in the country.
- Distance and online learning has become a mainstream way of teaching, often as part of a blended curriculum combining regular and online classes. Whilst this is undoubtedly the direction which education is taking, there are a number of questions about the quality of distance learning which universities have been providing and the large profits that they have been making.
How are ORT US Operations’ colleges succeeding in this environment?
ORT US Operations has colleges in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. We offer affordable two-year college degree and certificate programs, with skills training and job placement assistance. The average job placement rate is 85%. Places at our colleges are in demand – our enrolment has doubled over the last three years.
Our program expansion is focused on service industries with well-paid entry level jobs. We have targeted the areas of healthcare, renewable energy, computer game design and the paralegal profession.
It looks like our approach is in line with the thinking of President Obama and his administration. Despite a number of inevitable funding cuts affecting the higher education sector, the President has announced an initiative to increase the proportion of the adult population who go on to higher education from a third to half. Significantly, the most important role will be assigned to community colleges offering two-year programs, in particular skills training programs.
Given the backdrop to education in the USA which you have sketched out for us, what are the opportunities for World ORT and national ORT organizations?
World ORT has something that most large colleges and universities can only dream about: an international presence. In today’s world, global education is at a premium. Study abroad, international student programs (see, for example, the English and Science Summer School) and foreign language courses combined with on-line teaching elements could all be added or incorporated into ORT national programs. ORT US Ops would welcome ORT students from many countries to study at ORT colleges in the US.
It is gratifying to note that the ORT model of skills-based and vocational training – developed more than a century ago – is still in high demand today. World ORT should build its future programs on this model. Its expertise in high-level technologies is already being, and will increasingly be, sought out by multinational companies. The new industrial world – countries like China and India – could become the next area to focus our energies on.
I would be delighted to answer questions from any blog readers, and would certainly love to work towards developing cooperative programs with World ORT and ORT national organizations.