By: Victor Brown

Every once in a while, we experience moments of clarity. One such moment occurred when I was viewing The Ivory Tower, the 2014 CNN documentary film on the cost and value of higher education. At one point in the film, the camera captured this exchange between a parent of a prospective student and Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University:

PARENT: What you just said is terrifically exciting. Reminds me of going back to when I was in school. But the truth is, many of us are about to lay out a whole lot of money to you. Tell me one thing.

ROTH: Yes.

PARENT: Is my daughter going to have a job and she is not going to come back home after it’s done?

ROTH: Is your daughter going to have a job and not come back home? I can’t tell you that, although the time to be defensive about education is not now. This is the time to be aggressive about a broadly based, intensely personal, and intensively practical form of education. Whatever school you go to. And it is expensive. I know it. I don’t have to tell you parents here.

Roth failed to answer the question, because he can’t. He has no idea if that student will have a good job after her father spends in the neighborhood of $200,000 on her education, so he falls back on the liberal arts playbook about students finding themselves, seeking answers to life’s big questions, and the like. All well and good, but that parent deserved a much better answer from the Wesleyan president.

Where to possibly begin? As a former business executive and college faculty member, I have to step back and ask: are America’s colleges and universities providing employers with graduates who have the skills they require? Despite enormous amounts of money being spent on education at all levels, the answer appears to be “no”. So employers are picking up the slack, and that is a national embarrassment.

Let’s step back for a moment, and consider some realities.

Tuition costs are running triple the rate of inflation.

Student loans exceed one trillion dollars in the aggregate, higher than all American credit card debt.

Only 58% of students who enter a four-year institution earn a degree in six years, and far fewer than 50% of community college students achieve a 2-year degree. In both cases, students are spending a lot of money, and racking up a lot of debt, with nothing to show for it. That debt doesn’t just go away. It has to be repaid.

Even for those who do graduate, employers are not satisfied with what they are getting. As reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Business Roundtable contends that a third of their members are unhappy with the qualifications of college graduates.

It is easy to understand the employer dissatisfaction. A recent survey of 32,000 students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment Test (CLA+) showed that 63% of college freshmen failed to demonstrate proficiency in critical thinking and written communication skills. OK, you may say, they were freshmen at the time they took the test. You would think that three more years of education, at a cost of up to a couple of hundred thousand dollars, would rectify that. But you would think wrong. A stunning 40% of seniors still failed to demonstrate proficiency in the assessment test.

These depressing facts exist despite a ton of money being thrown at the students. As reported by the Georgetown University Center for Education in the Workforce, $407 billion is spent by colleges on education each year — $347 billion by four-year institutions, and $60 billion by community colleges.

On top of that, there is an additional $47 billion spent on private certification programs, and another $18 billion on federal training programs.

Despite these significant expenditures, with depressing graduation rates and shortfalls in proficiency, employers are forced to spend much more on education and job training.

The Georgetown study states that employers spend a whopping $590 billion per year on formal and informal education, and for “on the job training” — exceeding the combined total of educational spending by 4-year colleges, 2-year colleges, certificate programs and federal job training programs. Granted, this spending is for all employees, not just the one-third or so with degrees.

But wait. What really surprised me is that employers spend $177 billion of that total on what they describe as “formal education” — and 83% of the employees so formally trained have some college – with 58% of them holding a four-year degree!

So, what do we have here? Tuition costs that are out of control. Failure by roughly half of the students to even graduate. Employers unhappy with the quality of almost half of the graduates of four-year institutions, and needing to spend huge sums for addition education and training.

This situation is nuts, and cannot be allowed to continue. Current proposals being advanced are narrow and just tinker around the edges, usually in a self-serving manner (more federal funds, lower student loan rates, free tuition for community college students, etc.). They simply do not take on the truly big issues. The Obama administration has itself been all over the map — attacking selected for-profit colleges for saddling students with exorbitant loan obligations, suggesting increased funding for all community college students (despite the demonstrated low graduation rates), and proposing performance measurements on non-profit four year colleges and universities (the CLA+ results suggest they might actually be on to something here).

We need a more fundamental and up to date understanding of who needs a college degree, and who does not. Once we have that in hand, we can work to reduce duplicative educational spending, and then work to ensure that schools are delivering the type of educational outcomes that employers require.

For starters, a report by The Business Roundtable indicates that only 60% of jobs require some amount of post-secondary formal education, and only 35% require a bachelor’s degree or higher. This last figure is a rough match with the estimated 31% of the population who do have four-year degrees. But remember that an equally large number of students enrolled in a four-year college and failed to graduate. They have wasted their time, and thrown good money away (although the schools were happy to receive the tuition prior to the students dropping out).

To round out some of the salient data, Kiplinger Finance estimates that there are 30 million jobs in the United States that pay $35,000 and up, and do not require a college degree. They suggest that certification programs offered by community colleges, for-profit schools and corporate programs are sufficient to be successful in these jobs.

Is there a way to fix these deficiencies, and save money? I think so, and we almost certainly need to address the problem at two levels: the four-year college that on average is graduating only slightly more than half of its students, and the community colleges that have even lower success rates.

I’ll let the discussion of the four-year college wait for another day. It’s the community college that may offer the best opportunity to reduce wasted educational and training spending, while improving success rates through a robust partnership with the employer community.

There are 1,655 community colleges in the United States. That’s a lot of colleges, a lot of sunk cost, and almost every American (and employer) has easy geographical access to their local community college campus. Why not develop a more robust partnership between local employers and the local community college?

By that, I am not referring to the generalized “initiatives” that litter so many web sites. The Business Roundtable lists their support for Common Core, STEM, Early Learning, Teacher Education, etc. The American Association of Community Colleges highlights what you would also expect to be their issues— against college ratings systems, for additional Pell Grant funding, etc.

We need to go much, much deeper. We need to be granular, and think locally, county by county. Such a new partnership would take a hard look at the jobs in each specific geographic area — the numbers and types, the degree of training and education necessary, and then combine forces between the lead employers and the local community college to deliver one unified education and training curriculum that focuses on that majority of students who will not be going on for higher degrees. Focus on preparing them with the skills necessary to become productive members of the local work force.

Of course, for the students who do transfer to higher-level colleges, the curriculum should reflect the first half of the typical four-year college curriculum, as it does now. But let’s not forget that these students are in the distinct minority today at community colleges.

Larger employers have staff dedicated to training and education, along with a large number of contract training firms. Meld the best of these with the best of the community college faculty to create and deliver a specific curriculum and set of certifications that fits the needs of the business community.

Employers prize intellectual capital and defined skill sets. They want to hire well, and retain those they hire. An integration of the business and the community college in terms of meaningful internships and work-study programs will give both employer and prospective employee a better chance of getting the right (and lasting) match.

Community College career services departments already work in this direction — but it needs to be deepened, curriculum development needs to be folded in, and faculty need to be melded.

Continuing education and training is always necessary, as technologies change. There is no reason that employers can’t also carry this out in the community college environment, bringing added sources of revenue to those institutions, while holding out the promise of reducing total spending across the academic and business communities.

Many who read this column will think I am just a “vo-tech” guy, that education is so much more in terms of individual development, inquiry, asking (and maybe even answering) some of those Big Questions. I don’t disagree, but there is no reason we can’t do both.

We have to make an effort. Money is being wasted, time is passing, and we owe it to our current and future students to get this higher education thing right.