The backlash to college tends to be cyclical. But this latest iteration, in which pundits and politicians have questioned a supposed crusade for “college for all,” has been bolstered by the double whammy of a prolonged recession and a presidential election.
Many in higher education say the argument merely knocks down a straw man, because neither President Obama nor the powerful foundations leading the “completion agenda” have said that everyone should go to college; instead, they argue that everyone needs some postsecondary training, and that those who do go on to college should graduate at higher rates.
Also, often lost in the debate is the distinction of what, exactly constitutes “college.” Critics of “college for all” often focus entirely on degrees, particularly the bachelor's degree, and neglect to account for other credentials, like certificates, which Obama and co. have been careful to include in their completion push. To listen to some, one might think Obama and foundations want every American to attend a liberal arts college, a far-fetched idea nobody has proposed.
“College for all is a false premise. It’s not an argument anyone is making,” says Jamie Merisotis, president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation. “Taking time to defend against a false premise is not a good use of time.”
But while the discussion may seem frivolous, there are powerful societal pressures at play. The backlash has bipartisan and populist underpinnings, mostly due to rising anger about the cost of college. For example, The New York Times hit a nerve with a series on student debt levels, a hot issue for the Occupy movement. (Two-thirds of four-year degree holders take on some debt, with an average debt of roughly $25,000)
And skepticism about the value of college, even when supported by specious claims, can have real consequences, particularly if state lawmakers start agreeing that too many people are being prodded toward higher education. After all, questioning the value of college helps justify budget cuts.
For example, the backlash has gotten the attention of some politicians in Tennessee, says Claude Pressnell, president of the Tennessee Independent Colleges and Universities Association.
In particular, he says there has been an uptick in higher education being described as elitist, by both state legislators and business leaders. And that makes it easier for the state to reduce public funding, such as for state financial aid programs. It's also an unfair critique in Tennessee, where even the private colleges Pressnell’s group represents enroll a broad socioeconomic spectrum. About 48 percent of students at private colleges in the state are eligible to receive Pell Grants.
The national discourse has set the state back, Pressnell says, which is a shame given that Tennessee has been moving in what he calls the right direction in prioritizing higher education. The state is also poised at an important moment, as Gov. Bill Haslam, so far a big supporter of college completion, has flagged higher education reform as a top priority in coming months, with a focus on tuition costs.
“I don’t believe the overall conversation about moving away from encouraging access and completion is a healthy one,” he says.
Siege of the Ivory Tower
Rick Santorum got the ball rolling during his brief moment as a viable contender for the Republican presidential nomination.
“President Obama once said he wants everybody in America to go to college. What a snob,” Santorum said in February. “There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to tests that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor.”
Several political fact-checking services said Santorum was wrong with his paraphrase of Obama. The president soon fired back, a rare move for an incumbent that early in a campaign, saying: “When I speak about higher education, we are not just talking about a four-year degree.”
That back-and-forth has continued to play out in the news media. The most notable salvo came from Robert J. Samuelson, a pundit, who wrote in a May 27 column for The Washington Post that it is time to ditch the “college-for-all crusade,” which “looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II.”
College has been “dumbed down,” Samuelson said, citing the influential book Academically Adrift. Meanwhile, apprenticeships and a vocational approach to education have been de-emphasized, said Samuelson, who mentions only bachelor’s and associate degrees in his column. Academically Adrift, for the record, is about traditional-aged students at four-year institutions, and does not address the bulk of students Obama has targeted with his completion push.
Other similar opinion pieces followed Samuelson’s, including writing by Richard Vedder, an economist at Ohio University, who often argues that too many Americans are going to college only to land in jobs that don’t require degrees, like gigs as bartenders or taxicab drivers.
“I do think Santorum raised an issue,” says Vedder. “He got people riled up."
But Vedder says Santorum merely tapped into what has become a high-profile public concern. “I don’t recall that the college issue has ever gotten so much attention.”
Some within higher education have tried to answer Samuelson and Santorum, including William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, in a Washington Post op-ed (Samuelson later rebutted Kirwan's rebuttal). And Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, didn’t pull his punches when taking on Santorum. However, critics of “college for all” seem to get more play, perhaps because it’s always easier to sell a counternarrative to the news media.
The backlash flouts conventional wisdom, says Terry Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, which currently holds that “higher education is essential and has an extraordinary payoff.”
On the more extreme side is an op-ed by Walter E. Williams, a syndicated columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University.
“Let’s face it: only a modest proportion of our population has the cognitive skills, work discipline, drive, maturity and integrity to master truly higher education,” Williams writes in the Charlotte Observer, under the headline “How many college-educated janitors do we need?”
Obviously, there’s a big gulf between Williams and the completion agenda goal of roughly 60 percent of Americans earning a meaningful credential in the next decade or so. But how many people buy into his argument about the “modest proportion” of college-worthy students? That may be a key question for colleges in what looks like a prolonged era of strained government funding.
'Family of Credentials'
Samuelson got it wrong, says his friend, Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, and an economics professor.
“He screwed it up a little bit” by focusing only on degrees, Carnevale says. The completion push is really about “postsecondary education and training for all,” he says. But “that doesn’t fit on anybody’s bumper sticker.”
In a recent report, Carnevale and his colleagues detailed the value of certificates in various fields, many of which perform well. Over all, certificate-holders earn 20 percent more than workers who hold only a high school diploma.
Obama's specific challenge is for one year of college, which suggests that his administration is focused on certificates rather than degrees, at least in setting a baseline goal on college attendance.
Vocational and technical education often gets short shrift during debates on college completion, says Mark Milliron, president of Western Governors University Texas, and a former official with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Instead of focusing on a “family of credentials that provide that earning and learning potential,” like certificate programs that cater to working adults, Milliron says the discussion gravitates toward bachelor’s degrees. And that conflation is a problem, because “it plays into anti-elitism.”
Samuelson is hardly the only commentator to fixate primarily on four-year degrees. Part of the reason might be that most media types themselves went to four-year colleges, often selective ones.
Even so, there is a strong allure to the story of a college dropout making millions, or billions in the case of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, despite the fact that both tech titans have been staunch defenders of the value of college.
The self-made man (or woman, at least lately) is a distinctly American story, Hartle says, grounded in a belief that “thrift, hard work and sobriety” are all one needs to get ahead, despite the preponderance of evidence that attending college, even for a single year, is typically a good investment.
Vedder, however, cautions that perhaps we as a society are nearing the point where we have maxed out on the number of college credential-holders who can reap much value from higher education.
“The law of diminishing returns is starting to rear its ugly head,” Vedder says, and Americans “may get to the point where we’ve outrun the labor market.”
In previous decades that has decidedly not been the case, as degrees have continued to pay off, big time, according to a preponderance of data. And that didn’t stop earlier backlashes.
Hartle keeps a Newsweek cover from 1976 in his Washington office, which bleats in a red, block-letter headline, “Who Needs College?”
The argument has obviously been around for a long time, and generally heats up around economic downturns, such as when the tech bubble burst over a decade ago. Last year's backlash icon was Peter Thiel, a techie billionaire who offers scholarships to top students who agree to drop out of college. This spring Thiel taught a course at Stanford University, his alma mater.
Hartle says the safe money is that skepticism about the value of college will persist, despite periods of dormancy. And in most cases, its proponents will continue to hold degrees themselves and be “talking about somebody else’s kids.”