Posted: February 10, 2014
Americans are busy. Nailing our attention to anything as bloodless as higher education is hard work. We have both better and worse things on our minds than college curricula and administration, admissions policies, student loan repayment terms, or graduate unemployment rates. I say this as someone who is day-in and day-out issuing invitations to the American Mind to attend to higher education.
William Bennett and David Wilezol have bravely published their own invitation. It is far from Bennett's first. He has been issuing invites since he served as President Reagan's secretary of education from 1985 to 1988, when, most memorably, he dubbed the American educational establishment "the blob" for its capacity, like the amorphous outer space creature in the 1958 movie, to expand endlessly as it consumed everything in its path. Bennett also framed what came to be called "the Bennett hypothesis," namely, that "increases in financial aid...have enabled colleges and universities blithely to raise their tuitions, confident that federal loan subsidies would help cushion the increase." Translation: federal student aid doesn't make college more affordable. It just enables colleges to raise their prices to capture the new money.
Bennett's long list of books includes many that are framed essentially as guides to the perplexed. Body Count (1996) was about how to win the war on drugs. The Educated Child (1999) was advice to parents for raising children to age 13. Why We Fight (2003) was counsel to Americans still coming to grips with 9/11. The Book of Man (2011) anthologized writings that counsel Americans on the now vexed question of shaping boys into responsible men. Is College Worth It? follows in this train. It is framed as advice to those considering college—mostly American teenagers in the later years of high school, but also their parents and adults pondering another go at the Ivory Tower.
Attentive readers will discover that the discounted dollar "return on investment" for college tuition is much lower for most college graduates than they suppose; that student loan debt is a heavier encumbrance on the adult than it might first appear to the financially naïve 17-year-old; that differences in labor markets have a lot more to do with future income than do differences among the colleges one might attend; and that the price of a college is a poor proxy for the quality of the education it offers.
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All of these arguments suppose a utilitarian calculus about education. Somewhere deep in the background of Is College Worth It? is Aristophanes's comedy The Clouds, with the debt-ridden father, Strepsiades, urging his son, Pheidippides, to go to the Thinkery, not of course because he supposes that getting instruction from Socrates will make his son wise. Rather, he hopes Pheidippides will learn rhetorical tricks that will help the father beat his creditors in court. It doesn't turn out well for either father or son.
Of course, Aristophanes was mocking the father's vulgar conception of the usefulness of higher learning as much as he was mocking the uselessness of Socratic inquiry. Bennett and Wilezol, the producer of Bennett's national radio program, play a different chord on this lyre. In their view, it is just plain common sense to consider what kind of career prospects flow from a college education. Colleges should be compared with one another for how well their graduates thrive in later years, as should college majors. Degrees in petroleum engineering lead somewhere. Degrees in anthropology, not so much. (Alas, I am an anthropologist, and it is too late to do much about it now.)
But though Bennett and Wilezol have written a book that will gladden the hearts of Philistines, there is a Samson in their own hearts. They quote Saint Paul: "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Hidden in the middle of the book is the ideal of a college education as forming good character and cultivating a deep understanding of the Western tradition. Their emphasis throughout, however, remains the utilitarian calculus of "how much should I spend to get the optimal results?"
Doubtless, Strepsiades's misunderstanding of what college would do for his son lives on in the minds of many Americans. We ought to know better. College is far from a secure road to prosperity, and the idea that it promises relief from debt is a bitter irony for the millions laboring under the burden of repaying student loans. Bennett and his young colleague cite the painful statistics. In 2011, the nation's combined federal and private student loan debt topped $1 trillion, more than the debt on all the credits cards in all the wallets of all Americans. The debt continues to grow at the rate of $2,853.88 per second. Fifteen percent of student loan debtors are still repaying at age 50. Borrowers in their thirties owe an average of $28,500. But the average masks the large number of borrowers who have much higher debts, including more than 50,000 who each owe more than $200,000. And somewhat more than half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed in jobs for which no college degree is necessary.
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Such statistics ought to alarm us, but they no doubt remain uninteresting to American students sold on the dream of a life away from home, free of parental oversight, and larded with luxuries beyond the dreams of Eastern potentates. Nor are they dispositive to parents caught between the lure of having their children enrolled in—and, perchance, credentialed by—high-prestige institutions, and the fear that anything short of a college degree will doom their sons and daughters to the bottom rungs of employment and social status.
Bennett and Wilezol attempt to moderate this college-is-the-only-choice frenzy by evoking other opportunities: the jobs for skilled craftsmen (e.g., air traffic controllers whose median annual wage in 2010 was $108,040, and for which there are a projected 10,200 job openings this decade), the entrepreneurial options, military careers, the do-it-yourself approach of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other inexpensive varieties of online credentialing. They also mount a powerful argument that if students view college as an "investment"—many students say exactly that—they ought by rights to consider return on investment (ROI). Judged on that scale, the hierarchy of American colleges and universities looks remarkably different. The best 30-year return on investment on a college degree right now isn't an Ivy. It is Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California. Caltech and MIT come in second and third, and Harvard is surprisingly sixth. Bennett and Wilezol also calculate "Best Value schools," which include Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and William and Mary. Not surprisingly, most of those on the list are state universities.
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This argument ought to prompt parents to a serious reckoning with what is in the best interests of their children. It oughtto perturb the assumptions of teenagers as well, to the extent that college has become, as Paypal billionaire Peter Thiel put it, "the default activity" of those who can't think of what else to do. But these oughts are at odds with some powerful forces. Doubts about the utility of a college degree contend with that aspect of contemporary American culture which favors deferring responsibilities rather than gratification. A steely-eyed reckoning of costs and benefits also runs athwart the dynamics of our increasingly fragile families, in which not sending a child to college can often be cast as heartless parental selfishness.
Politicians seduce us with the lure of promises to make college more affordable and the fantasy that sending everyone to college will somehow confer "international competitiveness" and untold national prosperity. The "Bennett hypothesis" is not much of a battering ram against the illusion that all that financial aid really will lighten the load. Meanwhile, how many people have looked at Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development numbers and noticed the utter lack of correlation between the percentage of a nation's population holding college degrees and national prosperity? By a large margin, Russia has the most college-degreed population in the world: 54% of those aged 25-64 as of 2008. In Germany, which doesn't do badly on the national prosperity scale, the comparable figure is 25%. Yet President Obama tirelessly stumps on the theme that for America to prosper, we need radically to increase the percentage of Americans who have college degrees beyond the current level of 41%.
And these obstacles—cultural, familial, and political—to our awakening to the truth of the situation are far from the only ones. The business of American higher education is a well-integrated mixture of appeals to youthful vanity, cupidity, status-anxiety, and conformity. Among other things, everyone knows that "to get a good job, go to college," and that the premium in lifetime earnings for having a college degree is upwards of a million dollars. The last fact is plainly false, as has been demonstrated by several rigorous economic analyses, but no matter. The figure sticks in our heads a lot better than the $279,893 reported by Dr. Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research in 2009, or the $550,000 calculated by the Pew Research Center in 2011. Even Bennett and Wilezol fall back on the $1 million figure when cruising through the general argument.
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With all these obstacles, what exactly did Bennett and Wilezol expect to accomplish in this book by appealing, primarily, to the prudential side of Americans? The two currents that move slightly below the surface of the utilitarian argument in Is College Worth It? are the new vulnerabilities of American higher education and the related awakening among Americans to a new sense of opportunity. Both are connected to the long recession and desultory recovery and are sometimes crammed into the conceit of "the higher education bubble." The authors, for example, extol the rise of the for-profit universities, the emergence of MOOCs and other online options, and the ferment over alternative forms of credentialing. Set against the spiraling costs of the traditional four-year college degree and the often dismal outcomes of high debt and meager intellectual gain, these developments are so many needles and straight-edge razors at the skin of the bubble.
Americans confronted with the diminishing returns of a college education have several choices. They can try harder than ever to gain admission to the most "selective" colleges, which they take to be the ones most likely to yield a secure career. This indeed is happening. Ivy League and top-tier liberal arts colleges were flooded this year as never before with applicants, and their "selectivity," which was already sky-high, has become stratospheric.
Another option is to bail, and this too is happening, especially among young men who are increasingly opting out of the college-degree market at least as an immediate step after finishing high school.
A third option is to settle for lower-priced alternatives, such as attending a community college for two years before transferring to a baccalaureate institution. This too is taking place, as evidenced by the burgeoning enrollments in community colleges.
A fourth option has been for students to seek a graduate or professional degree after completing the B.A. For the last 20 years, students who discover themselves vocation-less after earning liberal arts degrees have segued into masters and doctoral programs, and especially into law schools. This expedient, however, is faltering. Applications are way down in many graduate programs, and law schools are discovering at last that the business of credentialing lawyers for non-existent jobs has limits.
Finally, a fifth option seems on the verge of materializing but awaits a decisive moment: the moment when students, parents, and employers decide that something like competency tests for specific skills are a more reliable credential than the omni-purpose college degree. This was the notion Charles Murray pushed in his 2008 book, Real Education. He argued for a version of traditional college education for the academically gifted, but narrow-cast training and certification exams for the majority.
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Bennett and Wilezol discuss all these options except the last, and in their penultimate chapter, they give 12 scenarios in which they advise would-be students how to get on with their lives. They are more latitudinarian than one might have guessed. To a student who got Cs and Ds in high school in subjects he wasn't interested in: "go to a big state school." This perhaps explains their shying away from Murray's brink. Higher education may be overpriced and poorly matched to worldly opportunities, but even unpromising students should, if they can do so cheaply, stick with the traditional models.
The answer to the question, Is College Worth It? is, of course, conditional. It is worth it for some, clearly not for others, and there is a large contingent in between, who ought to weigh job prospects, debt loads, majors, and institutional quality. That middle ground is hard to traverse, and the going is made all the rougher by the false appeals and disinformation that crowd around the youthful traveler. Bennett and Wilezol have offered a Baedeker for those considering the trip.
But the book also serves a higher purpose. For decades, American colleges and universities have been selling their versions of higher education as a road to status, riches, and security. By casting their critique of higher education almost entirely in the calculus of practical utility and financial reward, Bill Bennett and David Wilezol carry the point to its logical conclusion: if it is a bad investment, don't make it.