College Calculus

Writing for The New Yorker, John Cassidy argues that Americans should be “more realistic about the role that college degrees play” in terms of an individual’s life prospects, and claims that in doing so, they might finally begin to “appreciate the actual merits of a traditional broad-based education.”

If there is one thing most Americans have been able to agree on over the years, it is that getting an education, particularly a college education, is a key to human betterment and prosperity. The consensus dates back at least to 1636, when the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony established Harvard College as America’s first institution of higher learning. It extended through the establishment of “land-grant colleges” during and after the Civil War, the passage of the G.I. Bill during the Second World War, the expansion of federal funding for higher education during the Great Society era, and President Obama’s efforts to make college more affordable. Already, the cost of higher education has become a big issue in the 2016 Presidential campaign. Three Democratic candidates—Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley, and Bernie Sanders—have offered plans to reform the student-loan program and make college more accessible.

Promoters of higher education have long emphasized its role in meeting civic needs. The Puritans who established Harvard were concerned about a shortage of clergy; during the Progressive Era, John Dewey insisted that a proper education would make people better citizens, with enlarged moral imaginations. Recently, as wage stagnation and rising inequality have emerged as serious problems, the economic arguments for higher education have come to the fore. “Earning a post-secondary degree or credential is no longer just a pathway to opportunity for a talented few,” the White House Web site states. “Rather, it is a prerequisite for the growing jobs of the new economy.” Commentators and academic economists have claimed that college doesn’t merely help individuals get higher-paying jobs; it raises wages throughout the economy and helps ameliorate rising inequality. In an influential 2008 book, “The Race Between Education and Technology,” the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz argued that technological progress has dramatically increased the demand for skilled workers, and that, in recent decades, the American educational system has failed to meet the challenge by supplying enough graduates who can carry out the tasks that a high-tech economy requires. “Not so long ago, the American economy grew rapidly and wages grew in tandem, with education playing a large, positive role in both,” they wrote in a subsequent paper. “The challenge now is to revitalize education-based mobility.”

The “message from the media, from the business community, and even from many parts of the government has been that a college degree is more important than ever in order to have a good career,” Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton, notes in his informative and refreshingly skeptical new book, “Will College Pay Off?” (PublicAffairs). “As a result, families feel even more pressure to send their kids to college. This is at a time when more families find those costs to be a serious burden.” During recent decades, tuition and other charges have risen sharply—many colleges charge more than fifty thousand dollars a year in tuition and fees. Even if you factor in the expansion of financial aid, Cappelli reports, “students in the United States pay about four times more than their peers in countries elsewhere.”

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