A college education long has been considered the surest ticket to a rewarding career in America. But now there is a growing whisper that claims higher education is not for everyone, or might even prevent some people from achieving the success they desire. The whispers are correct, but only to a point.
College attendance has grown steadily in the United States for decades. In 2007, more than 18 million people — mostly young adults — were enrolled in degree-granting institutions. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 70 percent of 2009’s high school graduates were enrolled in college in October 2009. That record percentage fell slightly in 2010, but still was higher than in previous decades.
Many factors contributed to the growth in college student numbers — population growth, more jobs that required advanced training, a weak job market, and more state and federal aid that rewards ever-expanding student bodies. Also important, however, has been the belief held by many people that everyone has to go to college.
But explosion in the number of Americans attending college also has been accompanied by increases in college costs that have far outstripped inflation. According to the Sacramento Bee, two-thirds of students now borrow money to pay for college. The average graduate ends up owing more than $34,000. And that has led more people to ask: Are college students getting their money’s worth?
According to two recent books, the answer is no. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, a new book by Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, suggests many students learn very little in college. Crossing the Finish Line: Completing College at America’s Public Universities, a 2009 book by former Princeton University President William Bowen, former Macalester College President Michael McPherson, and Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution, found that fewer than 60 percent of students who enter an American university graduate.
Hence the rise of the UnCollege movement, a small but growing group that says the value of college is overstated. PayPal founder Peter Thiel, himself a graduate of Stanford University and its law school, has put his money where his mouths is. His Thiel Foundation recently awarded $100,000 each to 24 students under the age of 20 to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs. One recipient, 19-year-old Dale Stephens, is using his award to promote the UnCollege movement.
There is value in the idea that not everyone should go to college. At one end of the spectrum are people such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of college and became fabulously wealthy entrepreneurs. But they, like some athletes, musicians, and actors, are the exceptions rather than the rule. If colleges are taken to task for their low graduation rates, then it’s legitimate to ask how many Thiel Foundation entrepreneurs will own profitable companies in 10 or 20 years.
The reality is that college still is the road to economic security. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average person with a bachelor’s degree will earn 75 percent more over a lifetime than someone with just a high school diploma. A master’s degree is worth more than twice a high school diploma, while a person with a Ph.D. will earn, on average, almost three times as much as a high school graduate.
The United States needs more Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerbergs. But the answer to low graduation rates and rising debt loads is to make colleges more accountable, not to tell bright teenagers — who already think they know everything — that college has nothing to offer them.
In the final analysis, UnCollege is uncool, except for a select few.