The Chronicle Review

Are Too Many Students Going to College?

Noah Berger for The Chronicle Review

November 08, 2009

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.