Monday, May 28, 2012

It's Time to Ditch the College-for-All Crusade

Excerpts from Robert Samuelson's editorial in today's Washington Post (emphasis mine):

"The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it’s now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though higher education’s expansion also ranks as one of America’s great postwar triumphs.

 Consider. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. Going to college was “a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent” high-school graduates, wrote Diane Ravitch in her history of U.S. education, “The Troubled Crusade.” No more. At last count, roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree: about 30 percent a bachelor’s degree from a four-year institution; the rest associate degrees from community colleges.

 Starting with the GI Bill in 1944, governments at all levels promoted college. From 1947 to 1980, enrollments jumped from 2.3 million to 12.1 million.  College became the ticket to the middle class, the be-all-and-end-all of K-12 education.  If you didn’t go to college, you’d failed. Improving “access” — having more students go to college — drove public policy.
We overdid it. The obsessive faith in college has backfired.

For starters, we’ve dumbed down college. The easiest way to enroll and retain more students is to lower requirements. Even so, dropout rates are high; at four-year schools, fewer than 60 percent of freshmen graduate within six years. Many others aren’t learning much.

The real concern is the quality of graduates at all levels. The fixation on college-going, justified in the early postwar decades, stigmatizes those who don’t go to college and minimizes their needs for more vocational skills. It cheapens the value of a college degree and spawns the delusion that only the degree — not the skills and knowledge behind it — matters. We need to rethink."

MP: The chart above shows graphically the results of the "college-for-all crusade."  In the 1970s and 1980s only about one out of three high school graduates went on to college.  Now about half of all high school graduates attend college.  And most of them now graduate with student loan debt of $25,000 and many are having a hard time finding a job.    


At 5/29/2012 1:35 AM, Blogger PeakTrader said...

"In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. Going to college was “a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent” high-school graduates."

What would the U.S. economy look like today if only “a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent” high-school graduates" went to college.

At 5/29/2012 7:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The educational bubble and generally all make-work bubbles (including the war on terror and excessive prison sentences) are a direct result of technological progress. This will only exacerbate with time.

Since all of society's needs can be filled by a tiny fraction of its members, to keep the rest busy the government resorts to sending them somewhere. Be it Iraq, jail, or college.

At 5/29/2012 10:15 AM, Blogger morganovich said...

a question:

generally, when you see a massive price move like this, you see a huge surge of supply in response than ultimately reins in price.

clearly, some industries can react more quickly than other, but the education system seems to barely be reacting at all. (exhibiting very low supply response to price, supply elasticity to price, or however you want to terms it).

why is that?

i know a number of academics and jobs are still scarce and hard to get. there are lots of would be professors out there.

what's the structural issue here? is it regulatory? reputational? do you need accreditation?

in most industries, you'd be over the hump and into glut by now. even energy has a faster response than this.

what makes education so different?

even if this is a pure leverage issue where a big jump in student loans is driving both enrollment and price, one would expect a huge supply response like what happened in housing.

At 5/29/2012 11:14 AM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...


I believe this to be a structural issue. Accreditation is a huge obstacle. I believe (and correct me if I am wrong), but if your school is not accredited, you cannot get financial aid.

I think we are starting to see some supply increase (your DeVry's, Hessers, University of Phoenix's), but they are clearly not enough to deal with the demand.

At 5/29/2012 11:39 AM, Blogger David Foster said...

"what's the structural issue here? is it regulatory? reputational? do you need accreditation? "

A big part of it is surely branding. Harvard could decide to teach all its courses at the kindergarten level and it would be 5 years at least before their degrees would be devaluated in the marketplace. Conversely, Southwest Podunk State could achieve true excellence and it would be 10 years before anyone noticed enough to make a difference to the prospects of the graduates.

David Foster

At 5/29/2012 11:49 AM, Blogger morganovich said...


but branding is already pretty weak at the lower levels.

is it that difficult to produce a product superior to catbutt community college? or is there just no money in that?

i completely agree that reputation matters and posit that this is why an online degree from MIT will never carry anything like the weight of actually getting in and attending, but hasn't the growth here been almost entirely at the lower end?

top schools have not upped enrollment. it seems to me that the low end would be pretty open for new entrants.

At 5/29/2012 11:50 AM, Blogger morganovich said...


how does accreditation work?

i really know nothing about that process.

At 5/29/2012 1:38 PM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...

To be perfectly frank, Morganovich, I don't know for sure. An old professor of mine is now a university president, so I sent him an email. We'll find out, by hook or by crook.

At 5/29/2012 3:53 PM, Blogger Jet Beagle said...

morganovich and jon murphy,

I found some insights in the section "The Four Eras of Accreditation" in the paper The Inmates Running the Asylum? An Analysis of Higher Education Accreditation.

The Federal Government's role in college accreditation increased significantly after passage of the 1952 Korean War GI Bill and the 1965 Higher Education Act.

The 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act limited the ammount of distance learning by an accredited college. According to the authors, that 1992 Act also assigned new quality assurance responsibilities to accreditors.

Here's one passage from the paper which I found interesting:

"Many now argue that “the existing accrediting regime… hinders new institutions
from entering and innovating” and “educational innovators say the process is inflexible and
discourages creative approaches.” Accreditation now functions as a barrier to entry, keeping new institutions
with innovative ideas from participating in the field.

At 5/29/2012 3:59 PM, Blogger Jon Murphy said...

Thanks, Jet

At 5/29/2012 6:43 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 5/29/2012 6:44 PM, Blogger Stephen said...

Why no discussion of the lower education bubble on this blog? Costs have been increasing faster than the rate of inflation for decades. Shouldn't we be reconsidering the lower education for all crusade? It cheapens the value of a high school degree, stigmatizes those who drop out of high school, and spawns the delusion that only the diploma, not the skills and knowledge behind it, matters.


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