Is College Over?
ONCE UPON A TIME, there was a tower perched high upon a hill. Inside the tower, magical things happened: Teachers taught and students learned, and when their time together was done, the students had been trans-formed into better people who, in turn, transformed the world into a better place. In the pantheon of fairy tales, the fable of the university is the last one that adults still believe. Parents save their pennies to send good boys and girls away to think big thoughts and expand their minds. The money, the time, the crafting of a perfect smattering of extracurricular endeavors to create a well-rounded applicant…all of it is for this. College is the glass slipper, the sword in the stone.
[sidebar]But then, this winter, just after a new round of applications had been mailed, a barrage of studies, articles, and books began shattering the college myth. Robert Schwartz, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, released a report arguing that the well-trod path from high school to college has veered largely off course, with only 30 percent of students who start four-year degrees actually finishing. Then came the news that student loan debt had for the first time eclipsed credit card debt in this country, which did a nice do-si-do with the findings that student loan defaults were on the rise (9 percent for four-year colleges, up from 7 percent in 2008). People like Louis Lataif, dean emeritus of Boston University’s School of Management, and PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel began describing college as the next bubble, one that was expanding at an alarming rate.
Most explosively, there was the book Academically Adrift, written by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, which in January blew up the university mythology like a match flung onto a pile of gasoline-soaked diplomas. The book went something like this: College students aren’t learning as much as we thought. They’re studying fewer than 12 hours a week. They’re graduating without learning how to write. College, in short, isn’t providing the critical-thinking skills they’ll need out in the real world, a world beyond fairy tales.
Arum and Roksa’s conclusions had academics and parents wringing their hands and reexamining long-held beliefs about higher education. These newfound doubts were only exacerbated when the Pew Research Center and the Chronicle of Higher Education released a survey asking whether college was still “worth it.” The answer they came up with was perhaps best characterized by the Chronicle’s headline: “Crisis of Confidence Threatens Colleges.” Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said that the cost of college now far outweighs its value (a Boston-based company, by the way, is now offering shell-shocked parents tuition insurance in case a student is forced to leave school because of injury, illness, or death). And an alarming 38 percent of college presidents said that the U.S. higher education
system is headed in the wrong direction.
What inevitably followed all this—and just as 2011’s graduates were about to don their mortarboards—was a string of breathless articles about young college grads being a “lost generation” and the “new underclass.” A poll done by the consulting firm Twentysomething Inc. found that with the unemployment rate for people under 25 as high as 54 percent, nearly 9 out of 10 college graduates were planning to move back in with their parents. A Rutgers study showed that for those who did manage to land a job, the median starting salary for college grads had dipped to $27,000, down from $30,000 as recently as 2008.
“For a long time, colleges said, ‘You want the credential? You want the ticket to the middle-class life? We’re going to give you the piece of paper that says you’re qualified,’” says Naomi Schaefer Riley, a journalist and author of The Faculty Lounges and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For. “But you’re starting to get some pushback now.”
Photo Illustration by C. J. Burton