Is College For Everyone?

Peter Wood

College May Not Be Worth It Anymore” warns a headline in The New York Times. It has been a sacred dogma to the American left since the 1960s that “Everyone should go to college.” But the NYT headline is no fluke. Many on the left are now wondering out loud whether mass higher education is the golden road to “social justice.” Will cramming as many people as possible into “post-secondary education” end poverty? Eliminate inequality? Cure racism and sexism? Bring world peace?

In her NYT op-ed, Boston University journalism professor Elle Ruppel Shell focuses on the “cruel irony” that earning a college degree doesn’t confer much of a financial advantage on those who are “born into poverty.” Shell says the children of middle-class families who graduate from college on average reap a large bonus in lifetime earnings over those who don’t complete college: 162 percent more. By contrast, the increase in lifetime earnings for those who are “born poor” is much smaller, and “by middle age, male college graduates raised in poverty were earning less than nondegree holders born into the middle class.”

To reach these conclusions, Shell relied on the work of two economists, Tim Bartik and Brad Hershbein, who quickly declared that Shell had misunderstood their findings. They wrote: “While college may not do as much to reduce income inequality as some might hope, the poor and racial minorities still benefit a great deal from completing college.”

Calculations of the college bonus for lifetime earnings are a notoriously tricky enterprise. They are, of course, projections of what people might earn, given what they are earning at a particular point, and they seldom discount for people whose well-paying jobs sail overseas or find themselves downsized and down-incomed in middle age. Let’s not get lost in that labyrinth. Never mind whether Shell rightly read Bartik and Hershbein’s numbers. What’s fascinating is that her skepticism about the value of the college degree found favor with The New York Times.

What’s happening is a loss of confidence in the central tenet of progressive belief. We can see it as well in a recent column by NYT columnist David Leonhardt, “The Growing College Graduation Gap.” Leonhardt starts out with an affirmation of the faith: “College can bring enormous benefits, including less unemployment, higher wages, better long-term health and higher life satisfaction,” and these benefits may accrue to “the students from modest backgrounds [who] have flooded onto college campuses” in recent decades. But then he abruptly faces reality: “The college-graduation rate for these poorer students is abysmal.” The problem is that “college attendance has risen, but college graduation has not.”

Leonhardt is admirably clear about the statistics. Fewer than 12 percent of children born in poverty earn a four-year college degree, and that percentage has not budged for decades despite enormous efforts to boost enrollments from this segment of the population. As with Shell’s story, Leonhardt’s account quickly leads to complex data sets and complicating factors, but what is most fascinating is his sudden departure from progressive orthodoxy.

The old view was that “access” to college would change everything. The poor and dispossessed would become financially secure and self-possessed. A college education could and would transform the prospects for myriad individuals shut out of the American dream and would at the same time transform America by tearing down barriers of race and class, and by making the nation more competitive on the world stage.

None of this was ever plausible. It was a species of magical thinking that confused cause and consequence. People carry umbrellas in the rain. But carrying an umbrella won’t make it rain. Most successful people have college degrees. But awarding college degrees doesn’t make people successful.

Achieving worldly success involves quite a few things. If the economist Bryan Caplan’s analysis in his recent book The Case against Education, is to be trusted, high on the list is the signal that the graduate is willing and able to conform to social expectations. Middle-class students who complete college may have a built-in advantage in their willingness to conform. The American middle-class these days certainly doesn’t send legions of 17-year olds off to college who have read deeply or widely, who know much about their civilization, or command well-honed skills in writing, mathematics, history, or any other traditional subject. But they excel at conformity. Ask what they think on any social or political issue, and they will answer with the uniformity of a Roman legion declaring loyalty to Caesar.

This is by no means to discount the elite students who are on fire with intellectual ambition, or the practically-minded students who are on fire with their determination to earn degrees in finance, engineering, or the hard sciences. These are, together, the graduates of American colleges and universities who drive the “lifetime earnings” premium through the roof. They are, however, a minority, and mostly they are from the middle-class.

Shell and Leonhardt are far from the only two voices questioning the dogma that everyone should go to college. Dissent from that dogma is still far more common among libertarians and conservatives, but lately, figures on the left have been sliding away from the old idea that college would be a panacea for individuals and social ills. Robert Reich explained in 2015, “Why College Isn’t (And Shouldn’t Have to Be) For Everyone.” Reich cited a figure that far more often appeared in conservative critiques of higher education: “Last year, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 46 percent of recent college graduates were in jobs that don’t even require a college degree.” He then turned to what has become the standard fallback position for college-for-everyone: community college for all who are better suited to vocational education.

Even earlier, the Brookings Institution in 2013 edged out in front of Obama’s declared policy when it explained, “Why We Still Think College Isn’t for Everyone.” Brookings labeled its view “intentionally provocative,” but came out much where Reich did: “The most bang-for-the-buck will come from a vocationally-oriented associates degree or career-specific technical training.”

Brookings Institution and Robert Reich appear to have done little to reset the default assumption that going to college is the normal path, and only those who have a compelling reason should stray from it.

Do Shell and Leonhardt represent a shift in the prevailing winds? Perhaps, if the success of Caplan’s book, The Case against Education, is added to the mix. Not long ago, anyone arguing that college is often a poor bet could expect to meet little more than derision. The alleged college degree premium in lifetime earnings would be cited in fanciful multiples, and the doubter would at last be silenced with, “What is the alternative to college?”

That’s what has changed. Peter Thiel’s private experiment starting in 2011 of paying students not to attend college (The Thiel Fellowship—“Two years. $100,000. Some ideas can’t wait.”) snagged the attention of many very bright and ambitious students, but it also re-legitimated the concept of making it on your own.

Now it seems that the “college for everyone” crowd is growing a bit defensive. Enrollments are down and projected to decline still further. Unemployment is at historic lows. Those who forego a college degree are not necessarily doing poorly, and they are free of the heavy load of debt shouldered by their BA counterparts.

Peter Coy, the economics editor for Bloomberg Businessweek, exemplifies the discomforted apologist for the status quo. In a January essay, “The Case Against ‘The Case Against Education,’” Coy continues taking knocks at Caplan’s idea that government should pull back from using college as an indirect way to redistribute wealth. He writes:

When you yank public funding from education, you are making it difficult or impossible for children who grew up poor or in the lower middle class to get the same access to learning that children of rich families take for granted.

If the argument in favor of college-for-everyone comes down to this, the skeptics would appear to be well on their way to prevailing. The claims that increasing the number of students is good in itself, or that increasing the percentage of low-income students will change the dynamics of social inequality in America have gone by the wayside. What’s left is just an appeal to class envy: the rich get to take college for granted. No one really cares about this.

College-for-everyone was premised on the idea that the college degree is a secure path to personal prosperity. To the extent that ever was approximately true, it is now definitely false. For a large and growing percentage of students, the college degree means lost opportunities, heavy debt, and nothing close to that dream job.

What happens next among liberal advocates for higher education is re-messaging. Look for a dramatic increase in emphasis on community colleges and alternative career plans, proposals to nationalize student debt (“Free college for all!”), and the importance of bailing out colleges and universities because they are our great font of ideas and innovations. We are already in a stampede among colleges and universities to enroll “adult learners,” to make up for the shortfall of younger college students. The college-for-everyone dogma won’t disappear entirely from the liberal breviary, but it is well on its way toward being relegated to the appendix.

This article was originally published by Minding the Campus on May 29, 2018. 

Photo: Student Loan by airpix // CCBY 2.0

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