Centers of tertiary education have in general failed to redefine themselves so as to cope with modern conditions. In the old days a university degree from a recognized institution implied that the holder of said degree was reasonably intelligent and knew how to learn. Science degrees implied practical knowledge that could be applied on Day One of a job.
Unfortunately in the USA all the incentives were perverse: it’s the only country in the world where a majority of those commencing an undergraduate degree fail to complete. The wasted two years of General Education is a farce, designed merely to extract an extra two years of fees. Absurdly large admin overheads and generous pensions consume 75% of funds available. Professors rarely teach because they’re on the publish-or-perish treadmill, so students receive tuition from desperate post-grads hoping for tenure perhaps twenty years in the future.
Furthermore most students study for degrees that have little or no practical utility in our modern world. Yes, we need historians, but not tens of thousands who will ultimately compete for a handful of jobs. We probably don’t need anyone qualified in Media Studies or Feminist Critiques of the Calculus as a Tool of the Patriarchy. The USA is unique among OECD nations insofar as very few come out of high school capable of pursuing difficult courses (STEM subjects); this is why for the last few decades 80% of PhD students in the USA for subjects such as Physics and Applied Mathematics have come from countries in which a more rigorous approach to primary and secondary education has equipped them to deal with what most Americans think of as “hard stuff.”
Meanwhile the generalist managerial jobs that used to soak up Arts graduates continue to vanish as companies strive to reduce operating costs and AI/ML slowly erodes many positions that are better done through automation. While all this is happening, US culture still proclaims young people should “follow their dreams” and “live their passion” when the reality is that most will end up as baristas or barely surviving in a low-paid exploitative gig economy. My own daughter is a victim of this mentality, spending four years and a significant amount of money in order to study Calligraphy & Fine Art because she likes drawing and assumes money will fall onto her head once she’s graduated, though she’s somewhat hazy about the mechanism by means of which this pleasant outcome will occur.
The USA is ahead of the curve relative to most OECD nations because of historical circumstances, but it’s utterly failing to adapt and adjust its approach to higher education. My personal hope is that eventually online courses will find a way to provide reliable and credible certification so that people can opt out of the on-campus six-figure trap entirely. After all, we only created the university campus because back in the late 900s when my own alma mater came into existence there was no other option. Today we have the Internet so the tyranny of distance has been slain. In theory this opens up astonishing options; so far the reality has been somewhat disappointing. But perhaps one day…