But the skepticism is spreading, even among foot soldiers on the academic front lines. In March, “Professor X,” an anonymous English instructor at two middling northeastern colleges, published In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, an expansion of an Atlantic essay arguing that college has been dangerously oversold and that it borders on immoral to ask America’s youth to incur heavy debt for an education for which millions are simply ill-equipped. Professor X’s book came out on the heels of a Harvard Graduate School of Education report that made much the same point. The old policy cri de coeur “college for all,” the report argues, has proved inadequate; rather than shunting everyone into four-year colleges, we should place greater emphasis on vocational programs, internships, and workplace learning. Then, last month, a front-page article in the Times delivered striking news: Student-loan debt in the U.S. is approaching the trillion-dollar mark, outpacing credit-card debt for the first time in history. With all that debt, more and more are asking, what are we buying?
James Altucher is a self-made man. A onetime New Jersey high-school chess champion, he was raised in a middle-class home and taught himself how to invest by preparing for the role as if it were a do-or-die match, obsessively studying the ways of the established masters. (He claims he read every letter Warren Buffett wrote to shareholders and investors from 1957 on.) Yet unlike many of the figures associated with the view that college isn’t needed for success—Gates, Jobs, Zuckerberg—Altucher didn’t find his fortune young, and he didn’t drop out of college to pursue it. He holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Cornell, and he did two years of graduate work in the subject at Carnegie Mellon.
Not surprisingly, Altucher’s detractors often cite his credentials as evidence that he would like to deprive others of a privilege from which he’s benefited. To this, Altucher responds that his college experience is exactly what gives him the knowledge to criticize the institution. “People come back to me,” he says over lunch at a crowded restaurant in Union Square, “very smart, intelligent people, and say, ‘Look, college teaches you how to think, college teaches you how to network, college teaches you how to write.’ Personally, I didn’t learn how to do any of those things in college.” What Altucher learned to do in college, he says, is what all young men—“with almost no exceptions”—learn to do: drink and talk to women.
Altucher has a very personal perspective on college: He doesn’t think he should pay for it.
That training didn’t come cheap. By the time Altucher enrolled, in 1986, private-college tuition was already so high that he had to borrow heavily to attend. “Except for the first semester, I paid for my whole education,” he says. “I borrowed every dime.” He did everything he could to mitigate the expense. He took six classes a semester, stayed on for summer sessions, worked 40 hours a week at the computer lab. In the end, he managed to graduate a year early and still wound up about $40,000 in the hole.
Altucher’s views on higher education aren’t always consistent. “College is like the best thing in the world,” I was surprised to hear him say when I first called him. “It’s idyllic.” Indeed, he sometimes suggests that college is so idyllic it’s wrong to populate it with the young. Instead, he urges students to take time off and take advantage of their youth—to start a business, travel around the world, work for a charity. “What everyone asks then is, ‘How are they going to pay for that?’ Well, it’s one fiftieth of the price of college to do any of those things.”
This isn’t just a matter of harnessing people’s resources more productively, Altucher insists. It’s a matter of harnessing the country’s resources more productively. “Let’s take a step back,” Altucher says. “What’s the other American religion? Owning a home.” For years, the government encouraged home ownership for all citizens. “So we got more and more loans that were considered subprime, and look what that did. The idea, the religion of home ownership for all, turned into a national nightmare, a national apocalypse instead of a religion. The same thing’s going to happen here.”
The economic recession that began at the end of 2007 has had numerous, cascading effects: a decline in property values, retirement savings, birthrates, geographical mobility; an increase in the national deficit, political rancor, mental-health complaints. One effect the recession has conspicuously not had, however—despite what economists say may be the worst job market for graduates since the Great Depression—is on the number of American families who send children off to college each September. Fifty years ago, 48 percent of recent high-school graduates enrolled in a college or university. In 2009, that number was more than 70 percent—a historic high.