What is perhaps even more striking than these figures is that in the opinion of the vast majority of Americans, they’re too low. A 1999 survey sponsored by the Educational Testing Service found that 87 percent of Americans felt the lack of a college education to be a disadvantage in life. Ninety percent of high-school seniors expect they will go on to college, with seven out of ten of those believing they’ll progress from there into a professional career. “Education has been central to the American Dream since the time of the nation’s founding,” Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard, wrote in 2009. But in the decades since World War II, it has been college—not just elementary or high school, as before—that has become “fundamental to cherished values of opportunity.”
Social scientists and historians long ago identified this transformation in American educational expectations as the “college for all” movement, and public leaders and private philanthropists enthusiastically rallied support for it. But the data gathered in recent years on the value of college has been mixed at best, blunting the moral edge of “college for all” and turning some higher-ed advocates into skeptics like Altucher and Thiel.
This new criticism of higher education comes from three main sources. The first is the reality that, while all parents want their kids to complete college, little more than half of those millions who haul their laptops to campus each fall actually end up with a bachelor’s degree. The United States now has the highest college-dropout rate in the industrialized world, and in terms of 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees, it has fallen from first to twelfth.
The second source is the quality of the education available on campus. Nearly half of all students demonstrate “exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent” gains in the skills measured by the Collegiate Learning Assessment, even after two years of full-time schooling, according to a study begun in 2005 by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. (Many education reformers have focused their attention to gains from investments on the other end of the spectrum, in pre-K schooling.) In 1961, the average undergraduate spent 25 hours a week hitting the books; by 2003, economists Mindy Marks and Philip Babcock recently found, that average had plummeted to thirteen hours. In a typical semester, one third of the students Arum and Roksa followed for their recent book, Academically Adrift, did not take “any courses that required more than forty pages of reading per week” and half did not take “a single course that required more than twenty pages of writing.”
If college is neither a luxury good nor an investment, what is it?
But it is the data on the economics of college that is most disturbing. It’s bad enough that our colleges are underperforming, one can’t help thinking—but do they have to charge so damned much? In the past 30 years, private-college tuition and fees have increased, in constant 2010 dollars, from $9,500 a year to more than $27,000. Public-college tuition has increased from $2,100 to $7,600. Fifteen years ago, the average student debt at graduation was around $12,700; in 2009, it was $24,000. Over the past quarter-century, the total cost of higher education has grown by 440 percent. “Like many situations too good to be true,” Louis Lataif, the dean emeritus of Boston University’s School of Management, wrote in February for Forbes, “like the dot-com boom, the Enron bubble, the housing boom or the health-care-cost explosion—the ever-increasing cost of university education is not sustainable.”
This analysis, of course, takes a purely utilitarian view of college—higher education, as its many defenders hasten to point out, has a significance for students that defies the cost-benefit ratio. Last year, in response to a Times article titled “Plan B: Skip College,” The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead published a rousing defense of college’s ability to, among other things, “expose individuals to the signal accomplishments of humankind.” In an essay published in March in The New York Review of Books, critic and professor Peter Brooks dismissed the swelling discontent with college as cranky and narrow-minded. The university is, he wrote, “one of the best things we’ve got, and at times—as when reading these books—it almost seems to me better than what we deserve.”
“What kind of an economic good is college?” Peter Thiel likes to ask. One answer is that college is a luxury good—a high-end commodity whose appeal, like a designer handbag, grows in direct proportion with the size of the sticker price. This is the answer given by such recent polemics as Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—And What We Can Do About It, by the Queens College sociologist Andrew Hacker and the Times science writer Claudia Dreifus. Higher Education? contends that American colleges have transformed from rigorous scholarly communities into corporate-minded youth resorts, where some presidents command salaries of more than $1 million and competition centers on outdoing one another in acquiring high-end amenities (duplex-apartment dormitories, $70 million gyms).