• September 2, 2015

Are Too Many Students Going to College?

Are Too Many Students Going to College? 1

Noah Berger for The Chronicle Review

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Noah Berger for The Chronicle Review

With student debt rising and more of those enrolled failing to graduate in four years, there is a growing sentiment that college may not be the best option for all students. At the same time, President Obama has called on every American to receive at least one year of higher education or vocational training. Behind the rhetoric lies disagreement over a series of issues: which students are most likely to succeed in college; what kind of college they should attend; whether the individual or society benefits more from postsecondary education; and whether college is worth the high cost and likely long-term debt. The Chronicle Review asked higher-education experts to weigh in.

Who should and shouldn't go to college?

Alison Wolf: Anyone who meets the entry criteria and is willing to pay the fees should be able to go. In one sense, that just passes the buck—politicians then have to decide how much subsidy they are willing to provide. But it shouldn't be up to them to decide how many people go, what they study, and why.

Charles Murray: It has been empirically demonstrated that doing well (B average or better) in a traditional college major in the arts and sciences requires levels of linguistic and logical/mathematical ability that only 10 to 15 percent of the nation's youth possess. That doesn't mean that only 10 to 15 percent should get more than a high-school education. It does mean that the four-year residential program leading to a B.A. is the wrong model for a large majority of young people.

Marty Nemko: All high-school students should receive a cost-benefit analysis of the various options suitable to their situations: four-year college, two-year degree program, short-term career-prep program, apprenticeship program, on-the-job training, self-employment, the military. Students with weak academic records should be informed that, of freshmen at "four year" colleges who graduated in the bottom 40 percent of their high-school class, two-thirds won't graduate even if given eight and a half years. And that even if such students defy the odds, they will likely graduate with a low GPA and a major in low demand by employers. A college should not admit a student it believes would more wisely attend another institution or pursue a noncollege postsecondary option. Students' lives are at stake, not just enrollment targets.

Sandy Baum: Everyone should have the opportunity to continue his or her education after high school without finances' creating an insurmountable barrier. For individuals whose goal is a four-year degree, beginning at a four-year college is generally the most promising option. For others, different types of institutions may be more appropriate.

Daniel Yankelovich: In today's society and economy, virtually everyone who has the motivation and stamina should acquire some form of postsecondary education. That is a practical reality of today's economy.

Marcus A. Winters: In general, people benefit from education and should acquire as much as they can. Though there are many good reasons to do so, the best economic research suggests that the wage return for a year of college course work is more than enough to justify pursuing at least some higher education. That not all students have the skills necessary to keep up with college course work says more about the effectiveness of our K-12 education than about the cognitive ability of American students.

Richard K. Vedder: A large subset of our population should not go to college, or at least not at public expense. The number of new jobs requiring a college degree is now less than the number of young adults graduating from universities, so more and more graduates are filling jobs for which they are academically overqualified.

W. Norton Grubb: Students should go to college if they understand (and want) the economic or occupational benefits of college, as long as they understand the length of time and difficulty of attaining a degree. They should also be college-ready, and they should be enthusiastic about the intellectual roles of college—the chance to take general-education courses, the intellectual and cultural life of most colleges, the opportunities to develop broad and curious intellects. Otherwise college is likely to be narrow and utilitarian.

Bryan Caplan: There are two ways to read this question. One is: "Who gets a good financial and/or personal return from college?" My answer: people in the top 25 percent of academic ability who also have the work ethic to actually finish college. The other way to read this is: "For whom is college attendance socially beneficial?" My answer: no more than 5 percent of high-school graduates, because college is mostly what economists call a "signaling game." Most college courses teach few useful job skills; their main function is to signal to employers that students are smart, hard-working, and conformist. The upshot: Going to college is a lot like standing up at a concert to see better. Selfishly speaking, it works, but from a social point of view, we shouldn't encourage it.

How much does increasing college-going rates matter to our economy and society?

Caplan: College attendance, in my view, is usually a drain on our economy and society. Encouraging talented people to spend many years in wasteful status contests deprives the economy of millions of man-years of output. If this were really an "investment," of course, it might be worth it. But I see little connection between the skills that students acquire in college and the skills they'll need later in life.

Nemko: Increasing college-going rates may actually hurt our economy. We now send 70 percent of high-school graduates to college, up from 40 percent in 1970. At the same time, employers are accelerating their offshoring, part-timing, and temping of as many white-collar jobs as possible. That results in ever more unemployed and underemployed B.A.'s. Meanwhile, there's a shortage of tradespeople to take the Obama infrastructure-rebuilding jobs. And you and I have a hard time getting a reliable plumber even if we're willing to pay $80 an hour—more than many professors make.

Vedder: While it is true that areas with high proportions of college graduates tend to have higher incomes and even higher rates of economic growth than other areas, it does not necessarily follow that mindlessly increasing college enrollments enhances our economic well-being. My own research shows that there generally is a negative relationship between state support for higher education and economic growth. Sending marginal students to four-year degree programs, only to drop out, is a waste of human and financial resources, and lowers the quality of life for those involved.

Yankelovich: It is of critical importance to both. In the emerging global economy, our greatest competitive vulnerability is our nation's failure to close the higher-education credentials gap between middle-income and lower-income families.

Winters: Increasing college-attendance rates in the United States is essential to reducing income inequality and maintaining our stature as a world economic leader. Our economic dominance in the second half of the 20th century was directly related to our educational dominance. The United States was the first nation to provide basic education to all people regardless of their income. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the educated American worker was far more productive than his illiterate overseas cousin. That advantage made our nation rich. However, while other nations eventually caught on and caught up, American educational outcomes have stagnated since the late 1970s. We have lost our educational advantage.

Economists have cited the economic benefits that individual students derive from college. Does that still apply?

Yankelovich: It applies more than ever. With the disappearance of virtually all highly paid, low-skill jobs, the only way that most Americans can fulfill their aspirations for middle-class status is through acquiring a higher-education credential and the skills that go with it. From a practical standpoint, the credential is more important than specific skill sets. Employers know that they are able to train qualified employees in specialized skills. For most employers, "qualified" means having core skills like the ability to read, write, think clearly, and bring a strong work ethic to the task. It is those core skills (and virtues) that higher education warrants.

Baum: The evidence for the individual economic benefits of college is overwhelming. While the wage premium for a college education is not at its highest level ever, it is larger than it was five years ago, and typical four-year-college graduates earn more than 50 percent above typical high-school graduates. Numerous careful statistical studies reveal that a relatively small proportion of the gap is explained by differences in the characteristics of students who go to college and those who do not.

Obviously there is considerable variation in earnings among those with similar levels of education, and it is not difficult to find individuals who never went to college but earn more than some of those who graduated. Those exceptions neither prove anything about the payoff of education nor provide sound examples for young people. Going to college is not a guaranteed investment, and we should do more to protect individuals against the risks of the investment. But it is a wise investment for most people. Some people worry that those who miss out on college now because of cost barriers or absence of good local options would have disappointing results if they went. But the evidence is the opposite: People who get a little extra help that enables them to enroll get higher returns, on average, than the typical student.

Murray: A large wage premium for having a bachelor's degree still exists. For everything except degrees in engineering and the hard sciences, I submit that most of that premium is associated with the role of the B.A. as a job requirement instead of anything that students with B.A.'s actually learn. The solution to that injustice—and it is one of the most problematic social injustices in contemporary America—is to give students a way to show employers what they know, not where they learned it and how long it took them. In other words, substitute certifications for the bachelor's degree.

Winters: Those who argue that the bachelor's degree has lost its luster in the labor market are ignoring empirical evidence to the contrary. As of 2005, after accounting for the differences between those who go to college and those who do not, the premium for a year of college education was about 13 to 14 percent of an individual's weekly wage. Employers clearly still value the general knowledge and work ethic that a student acquires in college. It is important to note that the benefits of attending college are found both across and within professions. Blue-collar workers benefit nearly as much as white-collar workers from a year of college education. That is, going to college makes you a better plumber than you would have been otherwise. Why? One reason might be that college imparts nonacademic, social skills that can benefit blue-collar workers, who often must interact with customers and clients who are themselves college-educated.

Who should pay for students to attend college?

Wolf: A combination of students and government—though government's primary role should be in underwriting loans and making sure that people don't stay away from college because they are worried that they might not be able to repay a loan if they get ill, are unemployed, etc.

Nemko: In the same way that shifting medical costs to insurers makes patients cavalier about whether to demand fancy tests and procedures, even when not cost-effective, the more the government and private donors (alumni, private scholarships) pay of the college tab, the less responsibly the student and family need to determine college's cost-effectiveness. Also, every time the government increases financial aid or a private scholarship is set up, it merely allows colleges to raise their sticker prices more.

Yankelovich: I think we should put ideology aside and use good old American pragmatism. The combination of inexorably rising higher-education costs and lower state subsidies is a disaster for low-income families. The federal government and private foundations can play an important strategic role in filling the holes and cracks in the system: giving help both to institutions that lack rich endowments, through grants, contracts, and subsidies for community service, and to students, through low-cost loans, scholarships, special work-study programs, subsidies for commitment to future public service, veterans' benefits, and other support.

Murray: Ideally, students themselves. If that means delaying college for a few years to save money, so much the better—every college professor has seen the difference in maturity and focus between kids straight out of high school and those who have worked or gone into the military for a few years. The ideal is unattainable. But somehow we've got to undermine the current system whereby upper-middle-class children go to college without having to invest in it.

Grubb: There's a conventional demonstration in economics that students (or parents) should pay to the extent that private benefits (like increased earnings) are the result, and that government should support higher education when public benefits are involved. Given the dominance of private benefits, that suggests higher tuition; higher levels of student aid to make college-going more equitable; and public assistance to support obvious social benefits like civic education, crucial underfinanced sectors like education and social welfare, research, and service in the public interest. The high-tuition/high-aid policy preferred by most economists has never been popular, in part because aid levels never keep up with tuition. But it's a simple matter to devise an aid policy that does keep up with tuition, and higher education should concentrate on developing one.

Vedder: I question the conventional wisdom that enormous positive spillover effects of college attendance justify large public subsidies for universities. If subsidies are to be given, they should go directly to students.

Does the United States view and handle this issue differently than other countries? Should it?

Yankelovich: Yes, on both counts. Most advanced industrial democracies distinguish more sharply than we do between higher education in the sense of a four-year college education and apprenticeship training. Theirs is a test-based meritocratic system. Our system of four-year and two-year colleges is more flexible, allowing greater opportunity for highly motivated students. Our democracy tips the balance, in keeping with our social norm of equality of opportunity. I am not arguing that our system is superior to that of other countries, but simply that it is a core American tradition that fits our culture and history—a bastion of stability in an unstable world. We should do everything we can to safeguard it.

Wolf: The United States is different. But it is right, and other countries are mostly moving in the American direction anyway, as more and more people go to college. Many European countries have a deep-seated resistance to the idea that people should pay for any form of education, even though that actually means in practice that (poorer) taxpayers pay for middle-class college kids. I think that Britain's student-loan system, however, is much better than the one in the United States: We have a single regulated/quasi-governmental loan company.

Baum: While some countries place more of the financial responsibility on the government and less on the students, the increasing prevalence of mass higher education is changing the equation in many places. Governments that can afford to support a small fraction of the population in their studies cannot afford to provide that same opportunity to the growing numbers for whom postsecondary education is becoming a necessity.

At what point does the cost of going to college outweigh the benefits?

Baum: That is a question that will have a different answer for different individuals. First, the benefits of going to college are much broader and deeper than the financial return. If the question is how much is worth spending, the answer depends on career goals and alternative options. But it is clear that at current college prices, and considering existing financial aid, continuing their education after high school makes sense for most people who are motivated to do so, even if that requires postponing a portion of the payment in the form of loans.

Wolf: Not a question one can answer! Benefits are not just in earning terms. And it depends on the quality of the education and what people get from it, how the economy develops, etc., etc. That is why it has to be an individual decision.

Murray: It depends on how much money you have.

Winters: If we are speaking only in terms of a monetary benefit, then the cost of going to college outweighs the benefit when the expected increase in lifetime income is surpassed by the cost of tuition, interest on student loans, and forgone wages while in school. Given what we know about the large economic return for a year of college, and even with tuition continuing to increase, we have not yet reached such a point. Maybe we never will.

Nemko: No. We have a moral obligation to help all students to make a fully informed choice of the wisest postsecondary option for them.

Yankelovich: Yes. We have both a moral and a political obligation to ensure all students and their families access to affordable higher education. The heart and soul of America's unwritten social contract is based on equality of opportunity, and the vast majority of Americans know that in today's economy, higher education is the main path to improving one's lot in life. Denial of access to this form of self-betterment violates the unwritten social contract, leading to public anger, resentment, and political unrest. Poll data show that such anger and resentment are on the rise.

Murray: We have a moral obligation to destroy the current role of the B.A. in American life. It has become an emblem of first-class citizenship for no good reason.

Baum: We have a moral obligation as a society to create the opportunity for as many students as possible to go to college if they are so motivated. We have a moral obligation to make the financial aspects of college attendance manageable and to ensure that students get the financial, academic, and social supports necessary for success. Doing the morally right thing also means doing the smart thing for our general economic and social well-being.

Caplan: From a moral point of view, far too many students are going to college—just as far too many people stand up at concerts.

Vedder: Sending too many students to college instead of, for example, postsecondary schools teaching useful trades (to become a beautician, truck driver, plumber) is a morally questionable exercise. However, the American egalitarian ideal runs strong in our society, so a good position honoring that tradition in a cost-effective way is to allow all minimally qualified students some opportunity to attend at least a low-cost community college, and if success is demonstrated, then be supported at a four-year institution. But many people have the financial means to pay for that themselves, and the notion that college is a universal public entitlement is economically imprudent and morally dubious.

Grubb: We do have a moral obligation, emerging from several centuries of concern with equity in a highly inequitable country, to make access to and completion of college more equitable. But rather than proclaiming College for All, we should be stressing High School Completion for All, emphasizing that such completion requires either college readiness or readiness for sustained employment—or for the combination of the two that has become so common.

Winters: Our first moral obligation is to ensure that students leave high school ready to attend college.


Sandy Baum, professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College and senior policy analyst for the College Board

Bryan Caplan, associate professor of economics at George Mason University

W. Norton Grubb, professor of policy, organization, measurement, and evaluation at the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Education

Charles Murray, political scientist and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute

Marty Nemko, career counselor based in Oakland, Calif.

Richard K. Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and professor of economics at Ohio University

Marcus A. Winters, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute

Alison Wolf, professor of public-sector management at King's College London

Daniel Yankelovich, founder and chairman of Viewpoint Learning Inc., which develops dialogues to resolve public-policy issues; Public Agenda, a nonprofit policy-research organization; and DYG Inc., a market- and social-research firm

What do you think? Share your views in the comments section below.


1. asymptotic - November 08, 2009 at 10:20 pm

The short answer is yes. At our smaller, regional pubic U, my colleagues and I estimate nearly 40% of the students admitted are not properly prepared for, or entirely not able to pursue college level studies. As indicated here, this is a waste of public funds, but also a waste of professor's time. I wonder, how many of you find yourselves spending more and time either with eager students that just cannot handle college level work, or children who refuse to handle responsibility and deadlines? Either way, we're tutoring the incapable or policing the dead weight (apologies if that sounds cold).

I'd rather use this time to inspire capable students to push themselves even harder, and really give them what they, and the taxpayers, are paying for!

2. unemployedacademic - November 09, 2009 at 04:42 am

Wow. Listen to the ruling class's thoughts. So many words, yet so few about the necessity to have a sophisticated, educated public to participate in its own government, to break the increasingly effective stranglehold on information by the wealthy militarists. When virtually the only thing the pundits can discuss is the economic impact of higher ed, especially its impact on the individual, is it any wonder that serial obfuscation by the political duopoly works to exclude all but the financial thieves and extraction-industry barons who control the parties? Why are these the people consulted?

3. jweinheimer - November 09, 2009 at 05:55 am

It seems to me that the undertone of this entire discussion is that the public (high-school) education is so bad. Public education should be able to produce an educated-enough public to participate in its own government, because otherwise, only a small minority of college-educated people will be able to do so.

In any case, it seems to me that there is little difference between the real estate agents convincing people who want to buy a house that it is worth the investment when those agents know that chances are, it will not be (i.e. the housing dabacle) and convincing someone that spending tens of thousands of dollars for 4 years to get a B.A. in English or Art will give them a vocation that they can live on comfortably.

People spend money for higher-education to get a better job, but higher-education as it is today is still based on a world that has always existed for the very few: a world dominated by the old, gentlemanly idea that "sonny-boy" should get some kind of "higher education" so that he he has enough culture to rise above the hoi-polloi when he enters and eventually takes over daddy's business.

4. bethelcollege - November 09, 2009 at 05:57 am

I'm a little suspicious of all of this. We all know students who attend who aren't prepared; granted. And the problem may be with high schools; granted. We have created an industry--higher education--which demands resources, including students, parents, tuition, state subsidies, Pell grants; granted. At the same time, higher education is one of the few means of social and economic mobility in the culture. It enabled my working-class father to get an engineering degree and radically improve his situation. It's permitted my brothers and me to become professional people (bankers, construction managers, architects, professors). For special-purpose schools, such as evangelical colleges where I have worked, it's a primary means of preparing leaders for society whose perspective is distinctive and oriented toward service.

One of the issues not raised above with any clarity is the need to make higher education available to minority students. How can we expect significant social change if students of color have no hope of participation in the best of the economic and social life of this country? And as far as "asymptotic"'s comments above, if our perspective is that we're "tutoring the incapable or policing the dead weight" then we need to get out of the business or find ways to engage students in such a way that they change.

5. rchill - November 09, 2009 at 07:48 am

I believe some form of education beyond K-12 is crucial for success in today's economy. However, we seem obsessed with the traditional 4-year college and this is not a good fit for many of our students. Our goal as educators should be to guide students to find a career path that fits them. It is also our responsibility to ensure they are either prepared when they enter the post-secondary world, or get them prepared once there. Sometimes that means failing those students with no motivation and/or ability - then offer a hand to those who "get it" and want to do what is necessary to succeed. Of course, this means a tremendous amount of effort and time for educators - I am a biology professor and spent most of this weekend grading papers, as much for organization and grammar as scientific content. The time I expend in remedial work with my students takes time away from my lab and my own work. That being said, I teach in a small, rural,liberal-arts college; we are the only hope for so many of our students....so I have endless office hours and I cajole, yell, encourage. Sometimes it works - and it feels so good!
Addition - I do not think the opinions of "experts" are useless, but it would also positively inform the debate to talk to those "in the trenches".

6. baphd1996 - November 09, 2009 at 08:45 am

I don't believe that not going to college necessarily means the person is uninformed. I had a roommate in college that really shouldn't have been there. He will be the first to say that it wasn't for him, but that's what people did after high school. After years of starting and stopping, he finally quit for good, got a job he loves and has been working at for over 25 years. By the way, his grades in college were good, it was something else about college that didn't suit him.

7. rahodeb - November 09, 2009 at 09:20 am

Far many students are in college who shouldn't be. If they go to college because they think it will get them a job, they are deluded. A college education will not prepare you for a job in most cases. The worst possible advisor for a college kid is a professor who has never had an industry job in the relevant field. Such people cannot teach students how to look for jobs because they have followed the lily path of the academe all their lives.

One of the costs of everyone going to college is that people with college degrees develop a sense of entitlement, which prevents them from even considering certain jobs. As a result, we have job vacancies that are taken up by the less squeamish newcomers to this country, while our college-educated kids return to live in their parents' basements. I think more people should go to vocational schools and learn trades.

8. saasaa - November 09, 2009 at 09:27 am

It is not always about the top 25% of the secondary education class being successful. I have seen many who have barely made it through high school, me being one of them, benefiting from a college education. It is that elitist attitude that keep many students from succeeding.

COunselor and parents, at the secondary level, need to look at all possibilities for post secondary education - not just the four year model. Look at where the student's talents and desires lie - work with thet instead of grouping them based upon their gpa, soicio economic class or other criteria that makes it easier. They are individuals.

9. 22028784 - November 09, 2009 at 09:31 am

How did we reach the point in our culture when even the Chronicle of Higher Education's questions assume that education is primarily about ROI?

10. contreras - November 09, 2009 at 09:53 am

This is a very good discussion with some excellent comments, but almost nothing is said about the question that must come first: what is college-level work?

Much of the argument about preparedness and what comes out of high school simply melts away unless we develop a clearer sense of what college-level work is. Without some agreement on that (which we now lack) we can't ever know who is prepared for it or not.

Alan Contreras

11. csmomaha - November 09, 2009 at 10:35 am

College-level work = (at a minimum) the ability to read and comprehend on at least a 12th grade (standardized) level and to be able to express one's thoughts in writing coherently in complete sentences with minimal errors in syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Oh, and add to that the maturity to realize that one should spend more time on their studies outside class, rather than assuming that having their body sitting in class when it suits them is adequate.

12. tom_washingtondc - November 09, 2009 at 10:40 am

I work at a university where their sales pitch is that all adjuncts need to BFF (best friend forever) their students and buy them pizza, tacos, cake, popcorn, etc. to engage students so that they walk away with a feeling of a high quality experience. No matter how much you personalize or create food entertainment to dazzle and capture the student consumer's attention, they are not going to benefit from a college education unless they are motivated and have baseline level skills to perform the college-level work. Immaturities and a lack of work ethic aside, they struggle a lot in their studies, even with personal attention or face time given. Many read outloud like a 4th grader. Rather than put some students in an accelerated evening program, these students need to be in a remedial and decelerated program but nobody wants to openly advocate for it, even though it is desperately needed by so many of our students. The school seems to think that by adjuncts communicating to students that they are unique, special, and important and by listening to their dreams and understanding their realities, these struggling students will push on and stick with it for the sake of high retention rates desired by the university. I would rather not line the deep pockets of our administrators and our newly renovated school by keeping these students in the program by BFFing them.

How's your quality of educational experience, despite the fact that you can't read well???? As long as you like the food and adjunct teaching entertainment, we appreciate your tuition dollars to pay our administrators and the renovations to our buildings. We certainly can't use the money to pay decent wages to our adjuncts or pay for additional adjuncts to handle the remedial education courses that are desperately needed. And so, they graduate from college at an 8th grade level. Good luck in your MBA program at another degree mill school!

13. godsgirl9112 - November 09, 2009 at 10:50 am

On the point about who should pay for college - While I have seen cases where students who do carry the burden of college do not take it seriously, there are also cases where students care very much about their "free" opportunity. I do not think one can label students' personalities, behaviors and priorities so generally. They are a diverse body.

Of course, it also depends on the kind of aid being provided. I have become a fan of merit-based awards, because they hold the student to strict standards.

At the university where I work, Master's and Doctoral candidates have to continue to make satisfactory progress towards the degree. Often times, this includes maintaining a certain GPA, passing comps, conducting new research, and a number of other things as determined by their programs. Our thought is, we're investing in these students, so we want them to be serious.

I particularly like that we have a commitment to Ph.D. students, to fund them for up to 5 consecutive years from the moment they get into the program, as long as they maintain the necessary academic standards. This encourages them to get in, be brilliant, graduate, and move on. The funding clock ticks.

We also don't allow students (whether Master's or Doctoral candidates) to waste money by covering classes from which they withdraw. We make it very clear that this money covers only courses that go towards their degree, and that any balance accrued as a result of withdrawing from classes becomes the responsibility of the student. Students are not eager to pay $2,000 or $3,000 suddenly, so I think it helps them to plan their studies wisely.

This is of course just one example, and it applies to merit-based aid. But it does argue that we have to be more critical in our assessments of financial responsibility, student behavior and academic progress.

14. tgroleau - November 09, 2009 at 10:50 am

With a traditional liberal-arts college education costing well over $100,000 an education's ROI must be considered. Perhaps college was once a good place to "find yourself" but not at today's prices.

I regularly tell parents that there are two groups of students who should go to college right out of high school: 1) those who are in the top 10% of their class AND score in the top 10% on either the SAT or ACT and 2) students who don't meet #1 but have a clear goal (their own goal, not their parents' goal) that requires a college education.

Most of the first group will succeed just because of who the are. The second group can succeed even with moderate academic skills if their goal is strong enough and they have the motivation.

For students in neither group, parents should help them find a job - preferably a lousy, smelly, back-breaking job and they can "find themselves" while working. Then they can either go on to college with much greater motivation or they can turn to other appropriate post-secondary training.

Most parents ignore my advice and send their kids straight to college where they party too much, struggle to maintain a C average, and either drop out or take 5+ years to graduate. Then the parents complain that their kids can't find a decent job after spending all that money.

15. cygnet1001 - November 09, 2009 at 11:03 am

I cannot agree more with Alan Contreras. One can look at the economics and stats all day long, argue 2-yr v 4-yr v. something else, and debate who pays for what, but unless America has some cohesive sense of WHAT it is that "Higher" ed does, then a fruitful discussion cannot really ensue.

It seems like most of the experts really see higher education as primarily a vehicle for job skills or economic/social mobility. Have we entirely lost education as a humanitarian and enlightening/Enlightenment notion?

Additionally, as Tom from Washington notes, outside of the highest echalons of higher education, standards for quality of teaching and expectation are erroding by the movement toward PT/Non-TT faculty who rely so heavily on primarily subjective/student-based evaluations. If you want to see improvement, motivation, or growth at schools across the country, then a movement towards accountability and a loss of entitlement is required, regardless of how many students, in what fields, at what schools, and paid for by whom.

16. selenology - November 09, 2009 at 11:13 am

At the small-city high school where I taught for three years, every student was encouraged to go to college. It is the school district's policy. However, not nearly 100% of the students were "college material," for all the reasons mentioned in this article and in the comments. It seems deeply foolish that four-year colleges, in particular, should be pushed on every student. I've known many kids, on track to graduate from high school, who are perfectly happy at the prospect of being beauticians, auto mechanics, and cooks. And why not?

Since the apprentice system has long since died out, our society MUST replace its function by expanding vocational education; at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Vocational colleges should be running programs and accepting students in numbers that match Dept. of Labor forecasts about what the labor market will require two to four years out. Why is this not happening?

17. phillipssrp - November 09, 2009 at 11:35 am

I told my son "if you want a career that's recession proof... be a plumber" When you need a plumber, you usually REALLY need one.

As a society though, we don't respect those types of jobs... and we should.

18. tom_washingtondc - November 09, 2009 at 11:38 am

Bully consumer students are the most powerful when they threaten to drop the program and not pay tuition. Many for-profit, small colleges bully their adjuncts or have students directly bully their adjunct instructor to provide the "quality education" that they think they should have (pizza or career advice). Some program supervisors will call in their adjuncts and show the student's threatening evaluation that they will leave the school if the adjunct doesn't do X. WTF???? This is the quality control that they exert--BULLYING. Administration used to threaten job loss if grades were turned in on time. What kind of quality university manages others by threats of job loss?

Most adjuncts do not receive personalized or individualized attention or professional development. They are alientated and isolated from the university and from each other. There is no training or resources invested in adjuncts. Yet, it is ironic, that from this labor arrangement, the university expects high quality, personalized or individualized treatment for the student consumer who will struggle all the time while in college. All of this is to come off the backs of low-wage adjuncts who are treated very poorly by their university. "We like you when we can exploit you as a tool for high retention of tuition dollars". Never mind the fact that students do not perform well in the program because they should have had remedial education before they started the program. It makes for a bad outcome at the outset but as long as adjunct edutainment and food are provided to create student consumer satisfaction, then that's okay. They need to see high marks on those student evaluations, even from the vindictive, immature, or racist students. This is a complaint-driven program and whoever squeaks the loudest gets the attention of the administration who then goes in to bully down the adjunct. Real effective in professional development.

19. embeddedmba - November 09, 2009 at 12:28 pm

"How did we reach the point in our culture when even the Chronicle of Higher Education's questions assume that education is primarily about ROI?"

Second. I am profoundly distraught by the very idea that educators are pondering, much less debating, the ROI on education as the primary value of college in any form and using this data to the decide who should seek out an education and who should not. I am sad for all of us.

20. lotsoquestions - November 09, 2009 at 12:53 pm

The problem is actually with families that want their kids to go to college but who aren't really all that committed to education, learning or the life of the mind. Many families in my subdivision spend hundreds of dollars a month on fancy cable television packages and cell phones but have NEVER purchased a book for pleasure reading. Then they drop their kids off at colleges which they have picked out based on what cable TV packages are available and whether or not the dorms are shiny, their kids party for four years (and don't read for pleasure) and then the parents whine that their kids are unemployable. Really smart people would learn and read and prepare themselves for the future even without the college. Uneducated parents seem to think that college will somehow make their child more intelligent --regardless of the fact that the individual has never before been exposed to the life of the mind. Survivor, anyone? I'll be right over to watch "dancing with the stars" with you.

21. jamesgpeck - November 09, 2009 at 01:01 pm

One thing to consider is that community colleges have become our vocational schools. High school vocational programs have dropped by the wayside.

22. francishamit - November 09, 2009 at 01:20 pm

There are fields where a college degree is not helpful and may be a hinderance, and, as for getting a job, on my recent book tours I've met quite a few really overqualified retail clerks with Bachelors and advanced degrees. Most are not happy with this outcome and feel as if they have failed because they are working "below their potential" (as their disappointed relatives are prone to remind them). At the same time, we have very real shortages of people who can do fairly complex but low -status work in the trades, that pays very well. What does it matter if you are a plumber rather than a professor if the work is satisfying? Especially if the plumber makes more? The entire system needs reform from Grade Eight onward. A hundred years ago most people did not even complete high school and just went to work. When the possesion of a piece of paper becomes the qaulifier rather than true expertise, then the bar to attain it gets lowered time and again. The ultimate result of this is less competence across the board and less true knowledge. It is good to remember that the richest man in the world did not finish college.

23. lisaemily - November 09, 2009 at 01:41 pm

The investment in a college education should not be about your future wages, it should be an investment in your humanity. When I went to college in the 90s, I did not do it because I wanted to walk out and to step into some high-paying job. In fact, my current job has nothing to do with my degree. None of my peers who have gone to college have directly used their degrees for the jobs or careers they have now. Anyone who thinks that a college degree actually prepares anyone for a job besides academics is willfully delusional. I even paid for my own education. Do I regret spending this money, no. Why not? Despite my non-marketable degree, I feel I have a clearer understanding of the world I live in, I also realize that there is more to learn about this complex world, and I have gained some tools to be able to decipher some of this complexity.

I feel that this discussion opens up two major issues facing this society. One, education should not be something that you endure while you are young and when you finally get a career, you can stop learning. Education should not end with high-school, yet people have this attitude. There should be alternatives for post-high-school, more than just college, where people can continue and develop their education. I have ideas, but this will take too long to discuss. Two, the only way to prepare for a job is to do it. We need to re-instate a sort of apprenticeship model where people can learn any craft, trade, or work. This apprenticeship would be available for anyone going to college as a supplement to academic work. There should also be volunteer-work opportunities to recent high-school grads. This work can be traded in for government grant credits that will go towards education, if the student wants that. We should also have a credential program as one of the alternatives to college.

There undoubtedly other good ideas out there, but I really think society will be slow to change, if it ever does change. Americans have been b&*tching and moaning about education and its flaws ever since I can remember; the only positive change I have seen is the implementation of tax-deductible, student-loan interest.

24. mvansome - November 09, 2009 at 01:41 pm

Are there any statistics that show with the removal of all "tech" classes in high school our society has actually become less productive and those in trades are actually less educated than our fathers or grandfathers. Sounds like a good freakonomics topic. The point is that with such a focus on 4 year colleges as the only way to a better life we are sending the wrong message not only about those who work in the trades but about the goals of education in general and how those who are not attracted to higher education feel about being educated in general. Is it better to route all people (through use of standardized testing)towards higher education, or to begin creating educated critical citizens who value educating themselves in any subject they have interest? If you knew that higher ed is not for, how would you feel about the topic of education in general. It is an elitist's endeavor and to basically reject all forms of education. It's not that not everyone should deserve to go to college it's that not eveyone wants to go but they should value education in all its forms regardless of it bing instutional or not.

25. mwolf74 - November 09, 2009 at 02:08 pm

In reading the response form the first to do so, I do not think that his comments were "cold" as he put it, I believe it was an elitist response from someone who was more worried about having his time wasted than looking at the real issue. Granted, many students are unprepared for college level work and the students who consistently miss deadlines may not be suited for college at this time, but if a student who is struggling is truly attempting to do their best to complete the work, it is our duty to give that student the help that they require. I never consider it a waste of time. I will also encourage students to take advantage of the learning centers that are available in every college. There are policies in place to weed out the students who will ultimately fail. That is why students can lose funding if their grades fall below a certain GPA. I believe grade inflation is a greater problem and that starts long before they ever step into a college classroom. It is not a perfect world, but everyone should have the right to succeed or fail in college. We do not have the right to limit those who made the decision to go to college.

26. selenology - November 09, 2009 at 02:24 pm

To those who feel "sad" that education is being discussed in terms of ROI: Since when is higher education the ONLY place to "develop one's humanity"? There are many, many very humane, intelligent, worthy people who never went to college. I know a number of brilliant non-conformists who thoughtfully reject the b.s. that invariably comes along with the B.S. or B.A. People can read books, make and appreciate art, discuss deep questions and ethical quandaries, without the trappings of an Institution.

27. cybrarian_ca - November 09, 2009 at 03:07 pm

Yes, people can read books, make and appreciate art, discuss deep questions and ethical quandries, without the trappings of an institution - but only if they can read and think in the first place! I am not by any means saying that colleges are the only place that teach such things, and most of my closest friends never attended college - and yet one was a reknowned artist, and the other's spare time was spent reading Tolstoy, etc. But my husband and I have both spent decades in academe, as adjuncts, professors, librarians, and in other capacities, and are thoroughly discouraged by the numbers of students who come through the door completely unable to read at even a 3rd grade level! And this is at a mid-level college! We will help every student who tries, but no student should arrive at college both illiterate and innumerate. There's simply too much catching up to do. People in those positions should seek remedial assistance first, and then college if they so desire. I know people who quit school at 16, and ended up ultimately in postdoctoral work at an Ivy League institution. Not everyone who quits school is illiterate, nor is everyone who attends even close to literate. It seems to me we have far too many of the latter currently, and that tells me that something is deeply wrong.

28. ougrad - November 09, 2009 at 04:38 pm

How many colleges today offer remedial classes in reading, math, and other basic skills? It's a disgrace. We need to revamp K-12 so that students will actually learn how to read, write, and think. Then they'd be in a better position to decide what to do when they graduate from high school.

29. fizmath - November 09, 2009 at 04:41 pm

The numbers of college bound students are much lower for all other nations. Is the USA right and everyone else wrong? It is immoral to accept tuition money from a student who is bound to fail due to lack of intellectual ability.

College has value beyong ROI but you can't ignore money. Most of us don't have trust funds and won't get a cushy job in their uncle's business. Many will get their degree and then go sell real estate, insurance or cars. They did not need a degree for those jobs nor did they need 50K in loans.

30. iduhpres - November 09, 2009 at 05:10 pm

The issue is not are too many people going to college. The real issue is - are there too many colleges? Are too many colleges just bloated yawning money pits that need more and more students to feed their inefficiencies, greed and amorality? And are they structured properly?

The simple answer is yes. On all but one count. They are not properly structured. They are structured for times of public largesse, growth economies and privilege. Public is tired of giving when it does not have. The economy cannot support them yet the administrative and faculty privileges and salaries grow. Could go on at length but knee operation is hurting so will stop.

31. kimdutoit - November 09, 2009 at 05:48 pm

The very fact that the whole thrust of this discussion was about the ROI of a university degree and who should pay for it, is symptomatic of one single fact:

Universities are no longer institutes of higher learning: they are high-priced trade schools.

To paraphrase Albert Jay Nock: a person trained in a job can only do the job for which they are trained; but an educated person can train themselves to do ANY job.

The "ROI" of ANY university degree should be an educated person. All the rest is just grubby vocational claptrap.

If our worthy panel is that interested in who pays for a person's tertiary education, and talks of job ROIs, then the obvious conclusion is that CORPORATIONS should pay for the training skills they're going to employ -- as loans against which they can demand either monetary repayment, or remunerated (albeit indentured) service to the value of that investment. Then you'd soon get degrees offered only in the skills which corporations deem worthy of their investment.

If, however, the student wishes to garner a degree which is purely educational and has only little commercial value, it should be up to the student to pursue such grants and scholarships (i.e. given to students of exceptional merit and/or motivation).

The government should butt out of the whole issue, unless they are prepared to offer loans at rates equivalent to private lenders, and not undercut those lenders with rates which offer the government no ROI at all.

Look: this whole thing is either about money, or education. Let's quit fooling ourselves (and gullible students) into believing that it's anything else.

32. commserver - November 09, 2009 at 06:08 pm

I have been teaching as an adjunct for over 20 years. Too many of my students aren't prepared to do the work. In some cases it isn't their fault but the fault of the system.

Let me tell you a story from 15 years ago. I was teaching Statistics and a student came to me and say that he couldn't understand why he was failing even though he had all A's in high school. I questioned him about his background. How did you do in Trig? Got a blank llok. How did you do in Geometry? Another blank. How about algebra? More of the same.

I finally asked what math did you take? It turns out that he was an expert in shop math, mechanical math, home economic math.

I think that you get the point. To me even passing the placement tests don't mean anything.

33. marka - November 09, 2009 at 08:07 pm

Hmm ... Lots of interesting assumptions and comments about purpose and worth of formal instruction beyond K-12. I remember observations while I was going to college that the major benefit for male students was avoiding the draft, a major benefit to women was finding a husband (gasp), and the major benefit to society was delaying our entry into the labor market, and delaying child-bearing! Is formal higher education about promoting better citizens? I see some proponents of that, but am not aware that formal higher education 'creates' better citizens. Or is it simply vocational training? Regardless, I see the crux of this article is what should our public policy be regarding formal higher education. ROI is at the core of this discussion- should we put more resources (= $) into formal post-K-12 educational institutions, or elsewhere? (BTW - we are in a prolonged recession with a dramatically deeper public debt - we darn well ought to be concerned about 'bang for the buck' here) I think Obama, et al, are on the wrong track for the wrong reasons. We can and should provide opportunities for our younger folks, but we should also provide them with very concrete and specific advice about the cost of any particular formal 'education' versus any potential benefit. And we should be especially careful about what we want to support/subsidize. There are any number of investigations & prosecutions against vocational schools charging tens of thousands of dollars to 'become' a cook, mechanic, beautician, etc., burdening many 'students' with unbearable debt for relatively low-paying jobs. Likewise with the 'value' of a higher education -- many students, and the parents who fund them -- look at this from an ROI perspective, but are misled by the loose correlation studies of income to years of education. As others have noted, a great deal of this has to do with a self-selection/sorting process: youngsters, who because of socio-economic status, etc., are encouraged and can afford to go to school, can often 'benefit' from obtaining a degree -- but the piece of paper might be 'worth' more than anything they may have actually 'learned'. Seems to me we - collectively - don't really need all of our taxi drivers, waitrons, garbage collectors, plumbers, builders, beauticians, office assistants, barristas, mechanics, etc. == all the real practical workers providing the base for our living -- to have PhDs, or all of our business folks to have MBAs. As others have noted, what that generally does is foster a notion of entitlement, and a concommitant discontent when reality hits- if we really push all these folks into 'higher' education, we'll get even more folks who won't wish to 'stoop' to do much of the real work of our world. Sigh ...

34. iduhpres - November 09, 2009 at 08:44 pm

Okay. Here's one for us to ponder. Are enough colleges going to the students and at least meeting them halfway? The schools convince students to enroll so they must take the blame for the students on canmpus. Are they really doing what they can to help students succeed. Not at the graduation rates we have in this country. Students are just tuition fodder so we can rant on about how poorly they do and how we need to recruit better students. Or should it be as stated in Principles of Good Academic Customer Service It is not our job to recruit the best students but to make the students we recruit the best they can be.

And as for colleges being for higher education and learning and not for jobs or careers... Did any of us go to college just to learn? Or to become something...like a faculty member? If not, everyone can quit teaching and earning and just go off and learn. Oh? Eating is fun? That takes a job? Teaching is a job? I got the job by going to college? Tautology anyone?

35. coybean - November 09, 2009 at 11:48 pm

I find this interesting. My doctoral research proposes to study the evolving role of minority serving institutions and how minority students view the traditional liberal arts education. What my own experience at an HBCU suggests is that we need a better system of communicating what type of education is happening at different schools so that students and their support systems can proactively and accurately compare. As it stands the carnegie system is an insular system. The general public, particularly those with little experience with post-sec ed assume all college is the same. As such, too many of the most vulnerable students are set-up to fail in academic communities that do not suit their needs. The social constructs about what a college degree means to the poorest of us prevents an honest dialogue. We've made it socially unacceptable to want to learn a trade or to earn a two year degree or a certificate. So, we continue to drill the idea of a four year liberal arts education into students regardless of their talents, preparation or needs. The colleges are complicit in this. They all market themselves so as to justify their costs. There's little resemblence between some schools and their websites. But without guidance how are first-generation, working class and/or minority students supposed to know what they are getting into?

We shouldn't aim for more college grads or fewer. The aim should be a comprehensive education system where every American can find a post secondary program to fit their needs; and for them to feel free to do so without experiencing a decline in their social capital. That's bigger than an ed or a policy problem. This is a social/cultural issue.

36. laoshi - November 10, 2009 at 06:40 am

I appreciate the attempt to post a diverse discussion panel, and am enjoying the various responses in this thread. Many of the new students are career-switchers, such as the plumber mentioned, who are not ready for academic work. Also, many high schools are insufficiently preparing students for college work. Where should we nurture these remedial students? Should they be accepted and accomodated in the 4-year colleges or universities, or simply processed through community college developmental reading programs before applying? And who's gonna teach them, and teach them well, so they have a fair chance of success in academic life? As others have mentioned, the quality of adjuncts runs the gamut, and the expectations of administrators are focused on ROI, both sketchy realities. It seems to me that a higher student population should mean more cash flow, and that cash should be directed toward more tenure-track positions and less adjunct positions. This is all assuming that our remedial students can really step up their language and study skills under the right instruction.

37. jbestard - November 10, 2009 at 08:16 am

I think the society in the United States needs a massive incorporation to the higher education, it is neither a matter of who pays nor who has the skills; it is a matter of incorporate certain values to our society, that will make us to become more global citizens. This a gateway to modify certain attitudes that are increasingly appearing among the youth nationwide.

When a young person is busy with post secondary instructional and educational studies, their values are modified toward interests that definitely impact and benefit the society, reducing costs that the american way of life needs to reduce like prison costs, safety personel, police and society control, which drain our finances without any vision of improvement of the quality of life. Those costs are necessary but they will not produce the improvement of the quality of life and will not restore important ranks in several fields we should have internationally.

In the same direction, I think all those young veterans that are returning fron the front( and will be returning soon) who need the post secondary instruction to re-shape their life and to produce a better expectation to life as they deserve after being serving the nation overseas. That occupation may substitute therapy costs.

Definitely the post secondary education is a RIGHT OF THE NEW GENERATION and we, the present generation, must have the mission to facilitate this future for them, while the confidence interval for quality of the graduate will increase since the increase of the size of sample to select.

38. kathye8074 - November 10, 2009 at 08:45 am

As a community college faculty I shudder when I hear people speak of "dead weight" and espouse elitist attitudes. So what if there are many students in college? College is the way out of poverty, it is also a journey to new world and many are "opened up" in college and it can be a life changing experience. Good advising and good programs to support students in their college experience and journey make the difference in success of the student. Not to mention the concern, passion, and enthusiasm of the professor toward their discipline and students. There are professors out there that don't like the students, yet the students are the bread and butter of our institutions. They are human beings by the way. Yes, a number are unprepared, a number go to college because they can stay on parents medical insurance, or get financial aid, but what about those that are a success and improve their lives, insight, and not to mention may change the world? We have many returning students, older students, students that are unemployed and return to college for another chance. I see as many successes as failures. College may not be for everyone but let them find that out themselves. I never consider it a waste of my time to help a student or try to keep a student in class. The world is changing and we have to help be that change if we are the true educators. As Socrates reminded us it is our job to lead them out of the cave into the light - education and enlightenment. See the possibilities for yourself and your students - read Parker Palmer's "The Courage to Teach" - remind yourself why you do what you do. Love your subject and try, please try to love your students. As a parent of college students, former student, and faculty I would hope you would reach out and help and not run them all off! And, if possible send them to us, the Community College so they can train for a job - and by the way many of the jobs they train for start them out at good salaries, not poor ones and they can derive a skill and some techniques and earn a decent living. By the way my subjects are Philosophy and Sociology!

39. drgarysgoodman - November 10, 2009 at 09:23 am

Robert Schuller said it well in one of his books:

"You don't have a money problem. You have a thinking problem."

Thought, pure and applied, is the only thing that will solve our economic woes, create employment, and improve our relations to each other and to the planet. Innovation is the only product that doesn't devolve into "commodity" status.

Colleges and universities are the primary institutions in which we are taught to think and express ourselves, distinctively.

Starting at community college I worked my way through school, earning five degrees: a BA, MA, Ph.D.,JD, and MBA.

Each one has helped me to become a capable thinker and contributor.

I cannot express my gratitude sufficiently to the taxpayers, scholarship benefactors, legislators, teachers, administrators and fellow students that have enabled me to enjoy this life.

40. cheminot - November 10, 2009 at 11:09 am

I need my job; fewer students mean that professors, even tenured faculty, are going to be fired.

41. nacrandell - November 10, 2009 at 12:43 pm

There is a perceived value of a college education. The question is - is it worth it and which degrees are worth it?

In business the HR departments are hiring people with a B.S. degree in Human Resources. Years ago this position would be filled by people with a B.A. in Anthropology, Sociology and Psychology.

Has the university dumbed down their programs with paper-pushing degrees while increasing tuition because of an artificial need?

How is the tuition increase tied to the level of Stafford loans avaialbe to each student - are universities welfare mamma's?

42. gypsyboots - November 10, 2009 at 01:07 pm

Two points, Mr. Yankelovich:

1) "All" of the high-paid, blue-collar jobs HAVE NOT "disappeared" from America. I cover the inland waterways and worked as a merchant seaman for ten years. Even though those companies are hurting in the downturn, they have made far fewer layoffs than other blue-collar industries. Starting as a deckhand, you can work your way up to a pilot mnaking six figures in less than ten years.

2) "...our greatest competitive vulnerability is our nation's failure to close the higher-education credentials gap between middle-income and lower-income families." CREDENTIALS gap, Mr. Yankelovich? Don't you mean INCOME gap? The problem with promoting ever-more credentials is that credential inflation renders them worth less. Middle-class incomes have remained stagnant for thirty years despite ever-growing credential inflation. Yes, that problem is beyond the ken of higher education to fix; it has to do more with things like the growing slice that health care takes out of employee compensation. But more college isn't the answer, either.

43. dhagquist - November 10, 2009 at 04:24 pm

Some Colleges sell themselves to prospective students and parents. And, some of these sales pitches revolve around positive economic benefits to the prospective students.

A bit hard to blame the students and parents for believing what some in Higher Ed pitch to them.

44. rrblair - November 10, 2009 at 05:40 pm

The plumber is an annoying red-herring. When Marty Nemko calls his $80/hr plumber does he call Jeff down the street or does he call AAA Plumbing Contractors? Probably the latter, in which case Jeff is an employee (if he's lucky and is not an independent contractor working for the company--in either case he may or may not be unionized). Jeff keeps a fraction of that $80/hr. Much of it is kept by the guy who owns or runs the company, and that guy probably a college degree. Now let's say Jeff does work for himself or owns a small contracting company. He has to compete with AAA Plumbing Contractors which requires accounting, marketing, etc. --things that a couple years of JC if not an MBA would sure help with.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the median salary of plumbers is $20.56/hr (http://www.bls.gov/oco/ocos211.htm). And that's before you have somebody else's excrement on your shoes.

45. asfo_del - November 10, 2009 at 06:50 pm

When I graduated 20+ years ago with a B.A. from an Ivy League university, I was not qualified for any job. I could work at a bookstore or cafe like my peers, and I did.

Getting a college education is not about getting a job, it's about learning to think. That's extremely valuable in itself. What is dismaying are the shameless lies about what an expensive education will get you in terms of a job or financial security.

To get a good-paying job with a B.A. from an Ivy League, you have to go on to a graduate degree in a professional field, like law, medicine, or business. If you don't want to become a lawyer, doctor, etc., you're better off getting a different credential entirely, one that is not available at a fancy college, like a degree in nursing, fashion merchandising, accounting, etc.

I think everyone should have the opportunity to hone their critical thinking skills, regardlenss of their ability to pay. But I think it's high time to stop lying about the job prospects of someone who has learned to think, read, and write intelligently and with sophisitcation.

46. mark_r_harris - November 10, 2009 at 09:59 pm

I don't think it's particularly elitist to insist that college of any kind (including community college) should not be a do-over of what ought to have happened in high school (and I speak as a high school teacher). As for the central question, I agree that the top 15% academically will benefit from college, also those a bit below that level who are highly motivated and goal-oriented. In fact, high motivation ought to be a pre-requisite for any sort of education, including learning English, obtaining a GED, becoming a citizen, attending a trade school, and pursuing a PhD. If high motivation is not present, why should anyone else care, or pay?

47. klotsche - November 11, 2009 at 07:22 am

College-level work = (at a minimum) the ability to read and comprehend on at least a 12th grade (standardized) level and to be able to express one's thoughts in writing coherently in complete sentences with minimal errors in syntax, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Oh, and add to that the maturity to realize that one should spend more time on their studies outside class, rather than assuming that having their body sitting in class when it suits them is adequate.

Most students don't have such skills. Universities should not be job training programs and that is what many of them have become.

I need my job; fewer students mean that professors, even tenured faculty, are going to be fired.

If you're a tenured professor, you should be smart enough to get another job.

48. tuliptree - November 11, 2009 at 01:23 pm

For a long time, 4-year colleges and universities have had multiple purposes, often overlapping in the same institutions. Two-year colleges, though they're a fairly recent development, also have multiple purposes. Both are affected by the failures of K-12 education, and neither is likely to be able to revert to the single-minded missions that some of them may have had in the past (or that we imagine they had). To compare, look at the institutions of higher education that we have that do truly stick to one mission -- seminaries to train religious leaders, the military academies, special-purpose colleges like St. John's, conservatories that teach theory and practice of the various arts, even a few engineering schools.

For better or for worse, most of our remaining 4-year colleges and universities have varying balances between "life of the mind" and vocational emphases. Even very serious students of the arts and sciences hope that they may be employed in their fields (knowing that that may be an unrealistic goal); even highly career- and income-oriented students can have their perspectives enlarged by exposure to ideas through distribution requirements or by their own choice. The challenge that all of these institutions share is the declining readiness (and motivation) of many of the students they're getting, and the drift towards the BA as a credential but nothing more. This situation represents a highly inefficient use of the students' time and money, and to the extent that taxpayers are supporting their education, of all of ours. There have to be better ways to create higher income equity and opportunity for young people to arrive at the place they want to be in life.

49. mark_r_harris - November 11, 2009 at 03:35 pm

That analysis is very well-put, tuliptree! I would endorse eveything you have said.

50. fbear0143 - November 11, 2009 at 03:54 pm

Debates about whether too many people are attending college or whether they are prepared for college work aside, it is imperative to also account for a more serious reason for the high level of student debt.

It is my contention that much of this debt could be remedied if higher education did not consistently head the list of who/what produces the highest rate of inflation. The second problem is the obscenely high cost of textbooks.

I think the first will not be remedied until the federal government gets OUT of the financial aid business. We all know Parkinson's Law. Here is the corollary: The cost of a university education rises to claim every dime of financial aid available to students - and then some just for good measure. What is the reason that for years, higher education has seen the need to increase costs to a double digit level of inflation? Don't try to justify this situation by claiming rising costs or doing the job.

If the rising cost is for "talented" professors, believe me, I have worked with some professors whose reputations don't match up well with their product. In brief, if some institutions are paying huge salaries to buy a reputation, they are often getting severely short changed. I have know graduate assistants who are better at imparting knowledge than some of these highly paid "names."

The second problem is as bad as most Americans claim the problem is with the pharmaceuticals industry. And for good reason. How many of you have run across textbooks printed in the English language and matched with the ones you use in your classes in every way except for the presence of a single statement: NOT FOR SALE IN THE UNITED STATES.

The other angle of this same issue `is the incessant corporate mandate to make money, make money, make money. Ergo, completely unnecessary "revised" editions every three years at maximun and every YEAR, minimum. Of course we all know the reason for this. New editions make prior ones obsolete and does not allow students to take advantage of the used book market to save a few dollars. We already have the immorally low buyback rates paid by university bookstores when a student turns in a book he/she bought new just 3-4 months prior AND the excessive resale rate others must pay to purchase this now "used" book. And what about the students who are stuck with having to buy a new book, only to learn at the end of the semester that it cannot be sold back because a new edition has just become available?

The hands of higher education are far from clean in this situation, and I think that should be taken strongly into account in any debate about who should be here and why costs are so high as to leave students indebted for decades.

51. okaram - November 11, 2009 at 08:06 pm

Different meanings for college !

At least Dr Murray makes it clear, he's disparaging the BA/liberal arts, not all college degrees; it may be some others are too, or at least not distinguishing among the degrees (I just looked it up, and about half of bachelors are liberal arts and BA degrees).

I think the BA was never supposed to be job prep, and it doesn't have to make economic sense; it is about personal growth, and most of its benefits would be non-economic, and a ROI analysis would say they suck (appreciating art makes me enjoy life more, but doesn't increase my economic value).

This is true of liberal art style degrees, NOT of all college degrees (I teach CS and most of our courses are directly applicable to many computing jobs)

52. chron7 - November 11, 2009 at 08:17 pm

I find this discussion frustrating. Only the top 10% are ready for college? Can this really be true? But I've attended and worked at universities known for excellence. Am I missing something? What is happening at a 4-year state college that is so much more difficult than a community college?

53. doctorfixit - November 12, 2009 at 08:53 am

Gradually discontinue government funding at all secondary institutions. Government interference in the market created a false demand. Secondary institutions evolved into liberal fascist indoctrination centers with cartel powers that act as gatekeepers for jobs with absolutely no need for college-level studies. We need to disconnect the hold that academia has on employment, and we need to stop subsidizing anti-American leftist demogogues in the classroom. If private companies want trained apprentices, they will financially support the training. The current system produces people who in the majority of cases never apply any of their classes to their work life. Meanwhile, we dont have enough plumbers. It's an outrafgeously expensive farce.

54. doctorfixit - November 12, 2009 at 09:06 am

Note that the entire panel is a collection of academics. How self-serving. Why not include an equal number of non-elitists to get some balance here. I love the allusions to "moral obligations" and "government purposes". How is it moral to take money from minimum-wage diswashers to help finance a Master's degree in Feminist Studies for some blueblood? What purpose does the government have interfering in a buyer-seller contract between a student and an academic institution? The only purpose discernable to me is that the government is interested in promoting the fastest growth in cost to the buyer. There is certainly no discernable effort by the government to protect the buyer's interests, especially in getting value for money.

55. jamesgpeck - November 12, 2009 at 09:44 am

At age 60, I am a student in a vocational robotics program at a public community college. Many of the courses are similar to those one might take at the nearby robotics company's training facilities. Why would I take the training courses at the community college and not the private training facility? For one thing, I could purchase a single very expensive course at the private training facility, sleep through the whole thing, and still get a meaningless certificate.

56. tashana - November 12, 2009 at 10:46 am

I am appalled that this is even up for debate. As an educator and a professional, it is my JOB to assist and support, who many of you have called, incapable. I understand putting your energies behind those who want to be in college and have a greater sense of urgency and the motivation to succeed. But, what of those whose motivations have been suppressed by a society that thinks like many of the respondents to this question. "Are too many people going to college?" The fact that the question is being asked suggests to me that elitism is still a flagrant partner of the heretical believers in the haves and the have nots, and will at all cost, try to ensure that the meek stay in their place.

WELL GUESS WHAT...I was labeled incapable; a single, teenage mother, with a high school education, and not a dime to my name. I now have three degrees, working on my doctorate and making a career in the very field that I was told I would never succeed in. I am living, breathing proof that the incapable CAN DO ANYTHING THEY DAMN WELL PUT THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS TO.

This should not even be up for debate. We should be directing our energies towards helping the unmotivated pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and get in this war called life, and get ready to fight until the death. The death of oppression; the death of mediocrity; the death of complacency; the death of ignorance.

NO -- the question is NOT "are there to many people going to college?" The question is, "why isn't everybody going to college or at least aspiring to get some where in life where they can be successful, as they define success?" When a society is learned, educated and motivated - doesn't that benefit everybody? Which takes me back to my first point; there are still those who govern themselves by their ability to incite social fears in others. These people are nervous that the meek and the mild and "excuse me" the incapable, will one day rise up and be in the position to govern them. Be careful people, one day you might be saluting and working under the very individuals you decided to turn a blind eye to and throw under the bus with the label of ignorance plastered across their backsides.

Sure "you'd rather use your time to inspire capable students to push themselves even harder, and really give them what they, and the taxpayers, are paying for!" But what is the value in healing the physician who already holds the tools and abilities to heal him self? I say, there is none. If we only help the capable and the motivated, we will be perpetuating the classist egotism that made laws to keep people, like me, from learning because of who they were, what they had done, or what they had. Or maybe, that is just the plan?

57. firstgenprof - November 12, 2009 at 10:50 am

I always thought one of society's goals was to "create lifelong learners". (You can find this in almost every mission statement of every school district and university across the country.) And I agree with that goal wholeheartedly. But whether one's learning takes place in an autoshop, a coffee shop, in a classroom, or behind a desk, the point is to keep our minds active. College can help one stay mentally alert by opening up possibilities and opportunities. But is everyone ready for what college can provide at 18? NO!

Rather than ask if a young person SHOULD attend college I think the question is: WHEN should one attend college? We expect all people to mature at the same rate and be willing and able to face academically challenging topics at the age of 18. As a parent of teens and as a 20 year instructor in higher ed I say - Hogwash! I have had the privelege of working with students ready to take responsibility for their education at the age of 18 and others who aren't ready until the age of 25 or 35 or even later. But I do firmly believe that WHEN someone is ready to explore, they should have the opportunity.

58. workplaceskills - November 12, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Marcus Winters closing comment sums up the nonsensical idealism that has tainted our k-12 institutions in an effort to prove college readiness for all through standardized testing. We need to all take a deep breath and acknowledge that 50% of the people you meet are below average.

By preparing "everyone for college" (regurgitating academic fact on standardized tests) we are doing a disservice to the majority of our students that historically speaking would not have dreamed of setting foot on a college campus. K-12 needs to focus on critical thinking, problem solving, and workplace skills. This will prepare students for what ever continuing education they may require to be successful in their chosen field.

Sadly, instead we are chasing mandates and "shooting at the wrong
target". There are (still) many great, high earning careers in this country which do not require a college degree.

59. madamesmartypants - November 12, 2009 at 01:37 pm

I agree 100% with tashana's comment (#56). When there are still so many people who never get a chance to go to college, who can't afford it or have to work to support other family members, who are personally talented individuals yet never get the opportunities we lavish on the sons of scions and robber barons, the idea that college is "not for everyone" is just pure elitism--and maybe laziness, because it's always easier to blame the kids than to blame ourselves for being failures as teachers. When we look at the types of jobs that are available today and that will be in demand in the future, they are all jobs that require some amount of higher education in order to be prepared to do them. The way high school is now, students simply don't learn enough to prepare them for life and career in their 12 years of schooling.

I do think that colleges should take more responsibility for the high cost of higher ed--this is what is driving so many of the arguments about ROI--and specifically, should not depend on student loan packages to pay for extensive sports and grounds renovations. While many schools argue that this is necessary to attract students, graduating with zero in loan debt is extremely attractive for students, too. I think many schools have lost their focus on educating students, and this is what makes it so difficult to convince people that college is worth it.

60. 11171607 - November 12, 2009 at 02:18 pm

I know parents who pushed their kids into college to allow them to stay on their health insurance.

61. tuliptree - November 12, 2009 at 03:58 pm

Tashana and Madamesmartypants -- agreed that money should not prevent motivated and prepared students from pursuing college. And, there are plenty of students who are well-off who should nonetheless not be pushed into college. No one is saying that the unprepared are all from lower income groups, or that everyone who's well off should be able to go to college. What we're saying is that even once they enroll in college, 40% of students drop out or flunk out because either 1) they can't do the work; or 2) they realize that their ambitions will not be furthered by a degree that gives them no skills but is just a paper credential that shows they put in their time. Some colleges have dropout/flunkout rates much higher than 40%. That's not the sign of opporunity, but of dysfunction. What we're saying is that for that segment of students (and they can come from any economic class), college is not working. So then the question becomes, how can we imagine an educational system that really does meet those students' needs?

62. gtkarn - November 12, 2009 at 04:24 pm

Given the diminishing contribution of public funds for education, and the increased dependence of "public" universities upon tuition and private sources of support, and given the fact that a college education is now seen as a personal investment (as opposed to a public good) for which returns are expected i.e. degree=job=$ --- is there any reason why the entire higher education system should not be privatized and those seeking what it "sells" i.e. education as commodity, should pay for it even if they must join the debtor class (to the joy of the lenders)to get it?

I agree that something is amiss when we start asking whether too many are attending college. Rarely does the question: Is the shrinkage of "public" support for higher education a matter of concern, or should we be celebrating the fact that increased numbers of students must assume massive debt to obtain a degree?

63. jgarahan - November 12, 2009 at 05:55 pm

A modest proposal to solve education's standards and funding issues: First, work to eliminate 60-70% of all US college and university student positions as well as a corresponding 60-70% of the faculty. Just as most students do not belong in an academic 4 year college program, most "faculty" do not belong in a college/university. Second, retrain the redundant faculty as high school teachers--much more in line with their abilities. Now we would have minimally trained high school teachers and could implement a rigorous high school curiculum. Third, push what passes for the first year college course down to the academic high schools. No one should get out of an academic high school without 4 years of math,science, history,English, languages...real knowledge--not the pablum doled out currently in the high schools. There should be alternative secondary education for the less academically inclined giving them real opportunities to be gainfully employed. Most jobs in our society can be done with a "real" high school education. Fourth, with all the money saved fund universal continuing education so that everyone has access to all the education they desire throughout their lives, including those who did not go to an academic high school.

64. prof291 - November 12, 2009 at 08:05 pm

#63 present wholesale gratutitous insults. How awful in this newspaper.

65. gschuckman69 - November 12, 2009 at 10:57 pm

I commend the Chronicle for surveying some of our most prominent higher education analysts, advocates and antagonists about one of the most debated topics in post-secondary education. By providing the range of responses that span the ideological spectrum in one article, it affords us an opportunity to easily compare and contrast the various schools of thought on this issue.

President Truman said that "There are lies, damn lies, and then there are statistics" and I believe that he also was the one who said that he would prefer to have a one-handed economist because they are notorious for saying, "One the one hand..."

Both sides make compelling cases but I would agree that there is a huge public and personal expense for students who pursue a degree, certificate, or credential and do not complete them. Whether the barrier is financial, inadequate preparation, or self-inflicted due a lack of discipline and persistence, we should explore all of the options for removing those impediments. One area where I believe that we can all agree is that it is almost criminal for students to be allowed to graduate from high school and not be ready for collegiate-level learning. We have to address the high school dropout problem and ensure that our students are equipped with the academic and study skills that are necessary to succeed in whatever post-secondary training or education they may require to be successful, not only in the workplace, but in an enlightened, civil society that can maintain (or reestablish as the case may be) its global leadership.

We fail our children and endanger our nation's economic, civic, and even moral health when our educational system -- public and private -- does not provide the fundamental academic training that they need to function in today's hyper-competitive but globally connected world.

I thank the Chronicle again for affording those of us who care deeply about one of our nation's most treasured resources -- our distributed system of higher education -- the opportunity to sample the deeply held convictions that exist on this topic in one very thoughtful forum. Given the many comments that have already been posted here, I hope that the forum that you convened will serve as a renewed spark for continued discussion and debate on this issue in the coming months.

66. gschuckman69 - November 12, 2009 at 11:04 pm

By way of full disclosure, I should add that I am a member of the Education Commission of the States; university administrator; community college trustee; ACCT Board member; APLU executive committee council member; former member of the Presidential Classroom for Young Americans Board of Advisors; and former commissioner on a state postsecondary education planning commission. Oh, and most recently, the president of my sons' elementary school PTA, so I have a vested interest as a parent as well as higher education advocate in this issue.

67. javant1969 - November 13, 2009 at 02:39 pm

Let us put this in the correct terms. A college education has always been one way to increase the odds of moving into a higher level socially and economically in our society. College success rates mirror intrinsic gaps in society. However, some people who statistically should not make the transition and beat the odds do. I am definitely in favor or allowing as many people as possible a chance at that kind of success.

68. ianrmcdonald - November 13, 2009 at 04:09 pm

Please note that only 29.4% of adults aged 25-29 in the U.S. have BA degrees or higher. Maybe that percentage is higher than Prof. Murray et al. would like to see, but it's certainly not a majority and I bet it's a lot lower than most people realize.

If the goal is to keep most people away from spending four years on a college degree, congratulations: you are succeeding.

69. whall9 - November 15, 2009 at 03:34 pm

Ian Mcdonald makes a good point about the "education saturation" in our society. For me, I have two questions that I am interested in.

1) What is America's comparative advantage in the world market place? What are the things that we do best?

A: We are well aware of our strengths and weaknesses. We have a highly productive, and well educated workforce. . Perhaps our curse is that our (w/r) ratio is comparably problematic, but with a weakened dollar and with continued innovation we should be fine in the long run.

Ultimately, educating more people benefits our comparative advantage. (Or maybe not... We could always test to see if we would do better as a nation with a less educated workforce. For now, it appears that the benefits outweigh the costs.)

2) What is our strategic vision?

Pardon the sports analogy but, imagine that we are playing a multistage, single-shot game. At the first node of the game, the United States can employ one of two strategies: a) a baseball strategy in which resources are dispersed across the team with the intent of getting as many base hits as possible or b) an American Football Strategy in which most of the resources are directed towards a relatively few players (such as a quarterback) with the intent of making one or two BIG PLAYS.

It seems to me that we have decided on this as well. America has decided to disperse its resources across a wide array of actors in order to attain base hits.

(Sorry, for not carrying game to completion with differing payouts. Perhaps, it might make a good paper for someone.)

~Of course, I am always happy to be wrong.

70. rebel40 - November 15, 2009 at 03:47 pm

Interesting discussion but I saw no explicit mention of careers as opposed to jobs. Although not an educator per se, I mentor both high school and college science students on careers in science, especially in chemistry and especially "alternative" careers. I make the distinction right off the top between careers and jobs and I would hope that educators do likewise.

Coming from a blue collar family with HS education and less, I was motivated to pursue a college education with a definite career goal. Fortunately, I received scholarship and fellowship support through graduate school (plus a very supportive working wife; we were married before my college senior year) and left with minimal debt. I also had the support of teachers and mentors, for the most part excellent.

My education provided good thinking and problem solving skills, excellent skills for my three jobs and a consultancy in my (semi) retirement (and applicable to a number of situations). I wouldn't change a thing and feel very fortunate to have acheived my life and career. I would hope that others in similar situastions could be deprived of such an opportunity becasue of financial, philosophical, and pedagogical inadequacies of our educational system, K-16 and beyond. Do all the statistics you want but remeber all concerned are individuals.

I also deplore trends overly emphasizing college education and we need to work on good opportunities for all students. I also deplore the overseas outsourcing of all types of jobs, service and professional, a sell out by the corporations who preach a skilled workforce and then betray it.

71. whall9 - November 15, 2009 at 04:06 pm

If it is merely a question of cost/benefit, and whether we have hit a threshold, I think we are still safely on the net benefit side.

It seems as though higher education is an infinitesimal question when you compare it to the cost/benefit of prisons, our Muslim wars, our health care dilemma, or even the effectiveness of the stimulus package.

As far as I am concerned, there are only two things worth going into debt for. One is education, and the other is buying a home.

72. suttonpl - November 16, 2009 at 10:43 am

This is ripe with symptoms that our whole educational system( K to PhD.) is not in sync to best serve society? How many people of all educational background face foreclosure in the next two years? How well have we equipped people for the basics of life as we worry about getting them to college.
I laugh when the high school needs more funds to lower classroom size. While offering esoteric classes which take resources away from the basics. How many people out their can balance their checkbook? How many can read a food label and understand the importance of nutrition? Let us get all of education in sync for the whole of people.

73. davidicus - November 16, 2009 at 04:04 pm

for those who are essentially pro-education: how much education is worthwhile? at what point do the benefits of more taper off? are you aware of any wage vs education graphs?

74. richlewine - November 16, 2009 at 04:28 pm


75. mediaadjunct - November 16, 2009 at 05:28 pm

With more than 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States, from open-door community colleges to the most selective of the Ivies, it is not a stretch to suggest that there is a college for nearly everyone. Both students and colleges have become fairly adept in sorting through the maze and matching up with one another. But the greater burden for achieving an optimum match rests with the student, since profit motives (call it what you want) seem to drive institutions to admit students--think of them as the bottom third... or, at least, the bottom 25th percentile... almost guaranteed to struggle.

Students who find themselves among their academic peers enjoy school, and most will thrive in that environment.

So it means that a student whose academic credentials (grades & scores) indicate a perfect match with Arkansas-Little Rock shouldn't be admitted to Harvard--even if their dad is a billionaire and a Legacy Admit is a slam-dunk.

But when the UALR match washes out at Cambridge that does not mean he/she "should not be in college." It merely means that a grasp of self-awareness needs to be a big part of the decision-making process.

Murray and his supporters seem to believe that only students matched at age 17 with elite colleges benefit from liberal education, and that is nonsense.

Someone kindly alert Charles that the eighteenth century has ended.

76. woodshed - November 16, 2009 at 06:00 pm

I am not in education. I hire people. I have had a major shift in my thinking about the need for a college education, as most of my life, I have professed the need for people to attend college (i have a degree in engineering). But, in trying to find qualified, skilled workers, I think that higher education has become its own institution of big business. Are colleges really interested in educating students in skills that will put food on the table for their families, or only in keeping their institution in business?

I just did a Google search on how many colleges there are in the US, and I came up with 2696. Assuming that to be somewhat correct, that means that we have that many College Presidents, then how many VP's, staffers, recruiters, professors, assistant professors, operations people and maintenance staff. How many of those in higher learning are willing to step aside if the student population in colleges decreases? Why does there need to be 206 colleges in CA or 115 in IL or 91 in MA? Do we need that many "businesses" to run higher education?

But my main thought here is that in the article, and in most responses, the sentiment is that those without college are "less" of a person, and that they must keep the goal of going to college. Let me tell you that what I look for in hiring for a large company is those with advanced technical skills. That might be from college, but most likely from a community college, an applied college such as a DeVry, a technical school, or the military personnel who have trained to run or operate equipment (airplane, sub, ship, etc). Those people are the heart of American industry, and deserve the respect of all of us. The plumber, electrician, HVAC mechanic, your auto mechanic--all have to learn advanced skills in computer technology, learning in an evolving environment. It is something that many college grads cannot do. We don't have many skilled workers that can succeed with many of the degrees offered.

You never mention what to do with the 30% of high school students who have dropped out. How many of them would be productive workers with applied skills, if we made them feel that being a "worker" was something to be admired? Do you ever praise the company that provides you with electricity at a flip of a switch, or the person that keeps your exotic car running, or the companies that can deliver whatever you have ordered-overnight from across the country? I doubt it.

There is a huge gap in the need for skilled workers, and those students who are preparing for that work. The "babyboomers" are retiring faster than new workers are being trained. A babyboomer retires every 8 seconds.

We have developed industrial instructors, and have found that education instructors, for the most part, don't work well. They just cannot teach our skills without trying to encourage those kids to change and go to college. On the other hand, a master tradesman, who is proud of his skill and accomplishments, makes an ideal instructor whose enthusiasm for skilled work rubs off on the students.

Thanks for providing a very open forum to respond to.

77. raymond_j_ritchie - November 17, 2009 at 06:28 am

Every man and his dog has an opinion on this topic. Anyone who has ever taught in universities, particularly in first year classes knows that there is a huge number of students who should not be there. Fortunately most get the message quickly and leave. No matter how many exams, selection criteria and interviews you use to select students there will always be some that get in but once there are simply not able to benefit from higher education. The indicators were wrong. Humans flower or peak at different times. Look at all the jokes about someone "who peaked in highschool". Many a 12-year old "gifted child" turns out to be a 21 year old dead beat. Conversely, unpromising first years develop into top-rate PhD students. I am a first generation graduate and I am very glad I had access to higher education. In many cultures I would not have been given such a chance. If anything, I feel that someone from my socioeconomic background in Australia today has less access to higher education than I did. Although it seems inefficient I think as many people as possible should be given the right to fail in universities. The ruling elite has to have a permeable base otherwise it cannot maintain itself solely from its own children. The Normans understood that and it is no surprise that they are still in charge.

78. awinseck - November 18, 2009 at 09:31 am

I think this article would have benefitted from some student opinions as well, no? As a student who really does not fit the four year Bachelor degree model WHY he/she is at a four year institution. Maybe the answer is "that's what we're told to do. after high school, you go to college. no questions."

And why not get the opinion of a student who did all the right things, excelled in high school, had an GPA at a four year institution that was just shy of perfect, held multiple career related internships, essentially achieved every requirement of a B.A. with the experience to support it, and is still stuck with nothing more than a minimum wage paying job. please, someone explain to me how that happens. this story would do well to follow up with what happens to college students after college. how many end up back at home working jobs similar to those they had in high school? how valubel, really, is a B.A.? In my opinion, it truly just isn't worth the debt I'm in.

79. unclemonkey - November 19, 2009 at 10:50 am

There are two interesting interpretations of the article's title here:

#1: "Are too many young people trying to get ahead in life?"

Of course not! The reality is that a college degree will generally be a big help in the contest for comfort and prestige. Another reality is that we are a competitive society. Opening up the contest doesn't increase the number of winners. We cannot in fairness bar anyone from trying to get a college education, but we should be asking ourselves why it's so often a shoddy education, and why the average American, college grad or not, ends up with a pretty mediocre intellect, job, and life.

#2. "Have we painted a college education as a panacea and unwittingly made it into a millstone?"

Yes! Money-worship crossed with egalitarian zeal has made it the new gospel that everybody's smart enough to be a lawyer or a doctor, or at least as smart as a lawyer or a doctor in some (indescribable) other way. What kid would dare say she wants to be a cabinetmaker or a farmer? Since the intellectual vocations are the ones that pay best and command the spotlight, self-interest demands everybody should pursue higher education until he flunks.

A college education will inevitably serve most students poorly, but until society values and rewards people very differently from today, it will be their only hope of respect and security. If we as a nation should come to admire and pay concrete and practical skills as generously as accomplishments of the mind, the question of too many students in college will become moot. Until then, the answer has to be, yes, there are too many students in college, because it's the only place for them.

80. pm9531 - November 23, 2009 at 11:25 am

The average college grad will make more money than the average high school grad. Did you hear the one about the hunter who missed 50 feet to the left of a bird and his partner missed 50 feet to the right? The law of averages killed the bird. Where are the studies that remove professionals from the finacial comparison? The salary levels of many liberal arts students must be less than many of the few remaining unionized workers. Granted some will break the curve but the lower cohort will have fewer success stories.

81. kcerda - December 01, 2009 at 02:14 pm

The fact of the matter is that we are turning out college graduates who have never heard of Ernest Hemingway. I think the homogenized dream of a college education for all and a stable job resulting from that education, is a failing one.

The standards we now expect of our students have been set so low because we continue to chase the misguided belief that every snowflake is equally as special...or atleast special enough to get a BA and move to the burbs. If the "average" college student can't meet the standards previously set, we simply lower the bar until "average" matches up with the population in the schools. We are no longer (and I am speaking as an American here) a culture of excellence and innovation--in fact our classrooms, more and more, discourage these qualities by teaching to the lowest denominator.

Not everyone is meant to go through the 4 year undergraduate experience, and that is ok. We just have to remember that there are as many paths as there are people, and stop pretending like the only honorable choice is a bachelors degree because it hurts the individual and the system equally.

82. katgut5 - December 02, 2009 at 02:01 am

"As a community college faculty I shudder when I hear people speak of "dead weight" and espouse elitist attitudes. So what if there are many students in college? College is the way out of poverty, it is also a journey to new world and many are "opened up" in college and it can be a life changing experience. "

The above attitude is kind, warm, and fuzzy. But not realistic. For one thing, I have many students in my classes that will not only fail my class and fail out of college but will have loans to repay. A way out of poverty--or just a bigger hole to dig out of?

These failing students lower the standards for the rest of the class. If not for the half that is failing my music theory class, the other half (mostly As) could have covered twice as much material. I'm glad that one of the above posters mentioned the real problem: too many colleges. The beast is hungry for students, and must be fed.

The problem is pronounced in music: too many supposedly "serious" music programs need X number of students to fill the orchestras and bands and private studios, and the result is the churning out of vast numbers of young hopeful musicians who will never get a job, and are unprepared for anything else. The only priority of music faculty is to feed the beast and keep their numbers up. Period. The same continues at graduated schools of music, all the way up to the doctorate level. Weeding out untalented or lazy students runs AGAINST the interests of the faculty and administration.

83. ejcc824 - December 02, 2009 at 10:07 am

Another facet of the discussion of who goes to college and why is family/parental history. I know that part of how I knew that I was supposed to go to college was that I grew up hearing about my parents' college years and studies. BetterGrads has actually surveyed 500+ high school students to explore this aspect of the topic and found that 9/10 students whose parents finished college had a high level of interest in going to college themselves. The full analysis can be found here http://bit.ly/7kSkUo .

84. winodowntheroad - December 04, 2009 at 08:34 pm

What strikes me about this forum is mostly what strikes other. That people don't realize that college is both about 'learning' and 'earning' is indicting the practice ourself. Most people would like to own a home one day, afford to bring up children without agonizing over bills, and have enough left over for vacations, costly hobbies, and the other simple pleasures of life. For me personally, 'learning' is one of those hobbies: I enjoy reading the classics of literature. I'm often fascinated by the stories themselves and by how they illuminate and some times underpin the world we live in. Much of that interest I owe to college.

That being said, ignoring the financial aspect of it is absurd. I attended a nationally-recognizable, but regionally ranked college, roughly 2 or 3 in the South. I was a double major in a humanities and social science, and I graduated 1st in my class in both. I'm now in a graduate program at one of the most prestigious schools in the country. I'm there because the field I originally wanted to be in requires more training. Thankfully I incurred only minor expenses in college and I have had the opportunity to enter a program directed towards getting me where I wanted to be in the first place - many of my friends are feeling the opposite, they are in massive debt and with little chance of succeeding.

I just finished a theoretical course with one of the most distinguished minds in America. His work is recognized as preeminent within at least 3 discipline sub-fields. When he speaks, Congressmen, Senators, Businessmen, Judges, Scientists and even this President pay attention.

Now, ask your self what this man does with most of his spare time? He does manual labor, fancying himself a craftsman. At the absolute pinnacle of the academic profession, he is more interested in talking about things my blue-collar father and grandfather have taught me about than about what world class university or organization has honored him recently, annoyingly a monthly and sometimes weekly occurrence.

The point I hope I've made is that even for those whom the academic system is most beneficial, there are other concerns which if education compromises them, would undercut the entire point of it as something worth attending. If college is a good, than its going to have a return which overall is beneficial. I can say it was for me. I can say it was for my professors. I can't say it was for many of my friends who wasted several years of their youth.

Finally, an related but tangential point. If we really want to talk about life long learning, lets remember the first part of that. Schools aren't going anywhere. If the B.A. or B.S. becomes more of an earned over time thing - there is nothing wrong with that. My friend took 9 years to get a bachelors degree, and he's now 1st in our class with an intellectually stimulating and unbelievably prosperous job waiting on him. Poeple ought to remember that when they encourage an 18 year old to incur massive debt for something they 'might' be interested in.

85. daronmsavor - December 10, 2009 at 12:15 am

Too many are attending and I agree full-heartedly with Mr. Murray that only 10% of college-aged individuals should be attending University.

I saw firsthand the results of this phenomenon deeply entrenched in the lecture halls of my particular University and was perplexed at the levels of incompetence and lack of passion towards subject material shown by many of my fellow students. I wondered if anyone else shared my particular insights and was relieved to find Mr. Murray and his supporters waiting for me with open arms, telling me, "you are not alone".

I don't doubt the value of a hard science or engineering education, the students who remain in those fields are for the most part, fairly smart, and whose work and learning will benefit our society. (Though there are too many unqualified individuals who think being a doctor is a cool and easy job where you make a lot of money with little work) Those students are quickly weeded out, as should be.

But in the less challenging fields such as most of the liberal arts, business, communications, I found the lack of intellectual spirit in my fellow students disturbing. The most common responses I encountered when asking about their choice of major and their reason for being at this particular school, their responses were as follows. Degree=Good Job. Football! (a valid point, as our team is the underdog this year in the BCS Championship game). Party=Drunk=Its COLLEGE!. Not one intellectually stimulated response about the faculty and resources offered by one of the top research universities in the nation. They had no passion for their subjects, they waltzed into class with glazed eyes, and danced out with a degree. Most have never checked out a book from the library. Spark-notes are their best friend.

I was stifled by the inadequate writing ability of many of my peers when I reviewed and edited their papers. Some of them could not even write at a middle school level, much less a college level. At a top 50 University, nonetheless. I can't even begin imagine how it is at lesser schools.

An unfortunate trend at my University is that a great majority of students will choose their classes simply based on the "logic" of pick-a-prof and grade distributions. The most popular ones are the ones that give lots of A's. Few are actually interested in the topic of choice, and the unlucky ones get dropped into hard classes they don't want, skulking, sleeping, or skipping class entirely stifling the learning environment of people who are actually there to learn. Its also sad for Professors as well, because the truly excellent ones are browbeaten and criticized for their inability to gift A's onto undeserving students.

Grade inflation is through the roof here. I went to a challenging prep school where my best writings and most carefully thought out essays would usually only earn me high B's, with the occasional A. I thought University would be a challenge, but to my dismay, it has been anything but. I realized it when I quickly spat out some honestly dreadful essays for Philosophy and English Literature because I was in a rush, only to be rewarded with a sparkling 100 and rave comments. Really? Easy A's. Though according to most of my fellow students, these classes were incredibly difficult, the TA and professor were unfair graders, gave out too much reading, etc. Horrifying.

In Mathematics and Quantitative sciences it is the same story, though even our "honors students" seem ill prepared to handle the rigors of college level mathematics. Calculus is dumbed down so that the regular student can succeed. But even then, its still widely failed class even in its simplified state But that bodes ill, many people can "do" calculus, but few can understand its implications and applications. I can "do calculus" in the terms that I can memorize the concepts, complete practice problems, and repeat the ordeal on the test. But I can only apply its implications to the simplest of physical and economic problems. I'm not good enough to really UNDERSTAND calculus. I know that. But my ability to "do" calculus earns me an A+ at this University. And it really should not.

Too many kids are at college wasting their time. They are not happy with their studies, not happy with the debt they are piling on their heads to attend, but happy with the football team, and the plans for the weekend. They are here for the wrong reasons.

86. 11171607 - December 10, 2009 at 10:58 am

I did no work in highschool. Barely made it into a "less selective" college, got my masters in "highly selective" university and am in career I love. Sorry if my late blooming happened in your class.

87. 11171607 - December 10, 2009 at 11:05 am

College Dropouts Cite Low Money and High Stress
New York Times
December 9, 2009

Most dropouts leave college because they have trouble going to school while working to support themselves, according to a report released Wednesday by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan research group.

88. elizabeth7691 - December 19, 2009 at 11:12 am

As an instructor at a "career college," I see success stories every day. People who formerly worked at two or even three jobs just to make ends meet are now making salaries that allow them to provide for their families and enjoy a better quality of life. I have also seen students develop self-esteem, get out of abusive relationships, and begin to believe in themselves. I don't think that we can have too many Americans in college. It is sad that there are many intelligent young people with tremendous potential who are not able to do so.

89. major_energy - December 20, 2009 at 03:53 pm

I think Higher Education is in the middle of an identity crisis.

At the top of this page, it says "Higher Education" but would it not be more appropriate to say "Higher Research" instead?

I mean, when you look at faculty profiles of Professors, how many talk about how important they believe teaching is, their accomplishments at teaching, or education at all? How many reading this have a full page on teaching or education accomplishments? I'm willing to bet most readers if they are a Professor at a University go into some depth of their research and publications, yet do not mention once how well they educate.

And maybe most Professors can't teach to save their ass, and that's fine. Maybe Universities are not educating anymore and are simply credentialing at the Bachelor's level and is in fact 4-year vocational training. Is that necessarily bad? Is a fundamental shift in WHO "educates" undergraduates needed, (or has it already happened?!?) Is a third tier of University viable and needed (Research University vs Higher Education)?

90. odulibrary - December 23, 2009 at 03:00 pm

I'm somewhat stunned this is even a question, let alone one being presented as if it's a new idea.

Anyone who has ever worked at a mid to lower tier college or university and seen incoming freshman has known for years there are way too many people attending. The very nature and essence of what the university was supposed to be has been lost. The first two years of college, for so many, are now merely extensions high school and the ultimate goal for most is not a grand sense of being a "learned" person but merely acquiring a piece of paper to get a job. It's really quite sad to see what the university has become compared to what it was originally intended to be.

91. 11190847 - December 24, 2009 at 08:55 am

Since when does a college education over qualify anyone for being a good citizen? I am sick and tired of "the experts" telling us our workforce is becoming overqualified. It is absolutely desirable to have every citizen possess a baccalaureate degree---much like we professed 75 years ago, that is/was desirable for all citizens to have a high school degree or diploma.

Getting a better paying job is not the prime reason to get an education.

92. tmharrz1 - December 24, 2009 at 01:04 pm

There are many problems in higher education, cost being but one of them. Another is the quality of newly minted Ph.D's. More Ph.D's (at least in the Humanities) are being produced than ever before. Many of these individuals end up not at research institutions (a Ph.D is, afterall, a research degree and not a teaching degree) but at institutions that emphasize teaching over research. Today, more than ever, there exists more Ph.D's teaching at the community college level, for example, and they are often the worst teachers.
It is easy to blame the students. Yet, something must be done with the current system of doctoral training in the US. The Preparing Future Faculty program has proven a failure. Why? Ph.D programs are not emphasizing teaching beyond serving as a TA.
One possibile solution is to revitalize the D.A (Doctor of Arts) degree that was popular in the '60's and 70's (with a few universities still offering the DA in several subjects and they produce fine college/university teacher-scholars). The DA was considered a "teaching doctorate" and the end goal was to produce master teachers while at the same time allowing students to gain a solid foundation in research.
However, the false belief that the Ph.D. is the best type of doctorate to produce effective teachers at the post-secondary level is still dominant. This is sad and it is hurting students.

Individuals should be given the choice as to whether they want a doctorate that emphasizes teaching over research and vice versa. This would produce much better community college professors.
Having taught at the community college level for many years and sitting on several hiring committees, I firmly see the fact that Ph.D's are not receiving the necessary training to teach. Moreover, graduate programs ignore the possibility that their graduates might want to pursue a career in teaching at the community college level. Thus, why not have an alternative to the traditional, research oriented Ph.D, such as the Doctor of Arts? Those whom I know that have the DA degree are much better teachers than Ph.D's and are in no way inferior as researchers.

An overhaul in the way doctoral training is conducted in the US by giving individuals a choice between a teaching or research oriented doctorate would be a useful way. Our graduate schools, particularly Ph.D programs have failed, generally speaking, to produce high quality teachers.

And students are now forced to pay higher tuition to sit in classrooms with Ph.D's ill prepared to teach.

93. prof291 - December 31, 2009 at 09:52 am

The sweeping and relentless slanders about the teaching capacity of doctoral-degree holders are just intolerable. I don't see why professors with MAs--coming from the same graduate programs--are automatically presumed to be better teachers because they didn't go on for the PhD. A desire to teach has more to do with the final classroom outcome.

And by the way, I have sat on several hiring committees for job candidates with PhDs and found excellent teachers there.

94. udippel - January 07, 2010 at 06:31 pm

Thanks for a really interesting article, and a vivid discussion!

"It is absolutely desirable to have every citizen possess a baccalaureate degree" makes me laugh and shudder at the same time. This must have been written by someone who is far away from education, since everyone with insight knows all too well that people are gifted differently. And some find reading and writing and basic arithmetics difficult. So what's the point of throwing resources at them, just to assure that 100% of the population has a specific sheet of paper in their hands, on their names?

I for one would rather have a society, that allows, and fosters, everyone to live and educate and train to their inclinations, interests, and their abilities.

95. yonvon - January 15, 2010 at 02:45 pm

It seems to me that some of the forum participants listed above have a strange negitivity twards the college students who are trying to better themselves with a higher education. I understand that you dont want to pay for college students spending up tax dollars. I know because I am a college student myself, trying to pay for my classes is an enormous task.

Im sorry that your hard eaned tax money was used to help pay for my tuition, but this education will go twards getting me a better career. Then guess what? Part of my hard earned cash will go twards paying for your medicaid! So relax, the money will come back to you in the long run.

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