Higher Education and a Growing Entitlement Mentality

The arena of higher education is becoming an increasingly important issue within society. Not only does it garner attention, but it also seems everyone has an opinion on how it should operate and facilitate specific goals. Politicians envision it as an avenue for societal transformation. Businesses see it as an engine for a stronger more efficient economy through a better-trained and educated workforce. Parents believe it is now a primary facet of the American dream. Thus, they desire their children to benefit from its powers.

Yet, students understand it as a mixed bag. Some believe it is the most expedient avenue to wealth. Some believe it is simply the next step in life, just as high school came after middle and/or elementary school. Others are pressured into college, by any number of forces, as the only viable option. However, a growing number of students enter college with a sense of entitlement. This mentality is part of a growing movement within our culture. A movement that believes access to benefits, institutions, and the like is more akin to a right than a privilege.

As far as higher education is concerned, one only needs to look across the Atlantic for a vivid picture of what an entitlement attitude produces. As British students encounter the continued rollback of government intervention, the reality of paying higher percentages of their tuition is hard to accept. The outcome has been protest, picketing, and outrage over losing higher education as an assumed right.

While not as entrenched or outspoken as their British counterparts, greater numbers of Americans, and specifically American students, are at least open to the idea of higher education as an entitlement. This mentality is propagated and supported by several policies and ideas. Two of the most prominent are the increasing amount of federal financial aid and policy intervention, and the growing push for ubiquitous undergraduate enrollment and degree conferral.

Recent steps by the current administration, which build upon previous administrations, have signaled a shift away from student responsibility for college financial decisions. For instance, the rate at which students are required to payback federally guaranteed loans decreased from 15 to 10 percent of yearly income. Additionally, this legislation lowered the forgiveness date for student loans from 25 to 20 years. With only a 10-year wait for public sector employees. Furthermore, department of education documents delineate a strategy to grow Pell Grants, and transform it into an entitlement.

More important than the growing fiscal entrenchment of the federal government, is the growing ubiquity of college access and ultimately degrees. Again, this is a move touted as positive both economically and socially, and thus encouraged. Yet, a negative outcome of this trend is what researchers call “credential inflation.” The idea is that as college degrees become more common, the ability of that degree to garner opportunities for its owner decreases given the increased commonality of the product. The ramifications of this idea are numerous.

For instance, an increase in requirements for entry-level jobs will decrease the pool of potential hires, especially winnowing out those without college degrees. There is concern that allowing more individuals into higher education has decreased the intellectual culture of the classroom. An argument for this is the now common place of remedial courses. Moreover, the average cost of an undergraduate degree has increased, not decreased, with the rise of student enrollment. A reason for this rise is to guard prestige, especially within private institutions, against the growing tide of college enrollment.

However, the most potentially damaging aspect of credential inflation is the growing ubiquity of the undergraduate degree. In 1960 only 10 percent of Americans aged 25 and older possessed college degrees, by 2009 it was 30 percent. As the percentage of individuals with a college degree and the amount of federal financial aid grows, the idea of entitlement will as well. At some point, the ubiquity and perceived societal value of a college degree will evolve into an argument for financially supporting it as an entitlement. Maybe this mentality can be corrected, or maybe it is already here.

The central question for discussion is should everyone attend college, and the answer is no. Yet, the actions of governments, universities, and society would argue otherwise. Receiving an education beyond the secondary level is not, nor should it ever be a right or entitlement. It is a privilege, one that should be paid for wholesale by the student’s ability, either academic or economic. So, if loans are used than the total amount must be repaid. Reductions in yearly repayment percentages, coupled with an increased likelihood of loan forgiveness are laying the foundation for an entitlement mentality.

Michael E. Brooks has two master's degrees from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and an Ed.D in Higher Education from Union University. He is currently the Children and Families Pastor, Calvary Baptist Church in Dothan, Alabama.