Should Everyone Go?

Ashley Thorne

The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a symposium on a hot topic in higher ed: “Are Too Many Students Going to College?” (subscription required). The newspaper asked nine experts, including Charles Murray and Richard Vedder, to answer the following questions: 

  • Who should and shouldn’t go to college?
  • How much does increasing college-going rates matter to our economy and society?
  • Economists have cited the economic benefits that individual students derive from college. Does that still apply?
  • Who should pay for students to attend college?
  • Does the United States view and handle this issue differently than other countries? Should it?
  • At what point does the cost of going to college outweigh the benefits? 

These are timely questions following President Obama’s goal that by 2020 America would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world. NAS has weighed in on the implications of this goal (also voiced by the Carnegie Corporation, the Lumina Foundation, and the College Board) in multiple articles. Our instinct is that college is not for everyone—and new research shows that spending billions to multiply enrollment numbers does not lead to greater innovation or national competitiveness. Instead, attempts to make higher education universal will only cheapen the quality of learning and the value of the degree; sink more and more students into deep debt; and waste America’s tax money. 

In the Chronicle forum, five experts said that all students who have the desire and ability should be able to go to college. Four said that many people should not go to college but should look into other forms of continuing education, such as apprenticeship, on-the-job training, or the military. 

At the end of the article, each author considers the issue from a moral point of view. Some said we have a moral duty to make higher education accessible to everyone; some said that sending too many students to college is “morally questionable”; and one (Charles Murray of course) said “We have a moral obligation to destroy the current role of the B.A. in American life.” 

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has also taken a tone of morality in regard to education access. In a March 2009 letter to the attendees of the UNESCO World Conference on Education for Sustainable Development, he wrote that “education for sustainability is not just about the environment,” but is also about “providing maximum educational opportunity – at every level for every person.” 

The Chronicle asked readers to give their opinions in the comments section of the article. We are interested in what NAS readers in particular have to say about this issue. Should all Americans go to college? Is it worthwhile? Is there any harm in putting too many students in higher education?

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