The Imperiled Promise of College — A Response

May 7, 2012

So much right, so much wrong.

In an April 28 opinion piece in the New York Times, regular columnist Frank Bruni tees off on issues around college affordability.  His starting point in “The Imperiled Promise of College” is the debate about whether we ought to keep interest rates low on student loans, but he tries to illuminate a much wider set of issues.  He’s right to do that: student loan issues are hard to see clearly without seeing a good deal else.  But along the way, Bruni gets as many things wrong as he gets right.

Here’s his basic pitch.  I’ll number the propositions because I’ll want to discuss each of them in turn.  (1) College used to be a key to success, and (2) it was broadly accessible to all.  (3) But now, because of the rising cost of college, such an education has become a luxury item. (4) And the pay-off is no longer secure: many young graduates are finding it hard to find a decent job. (5) Yes, there are good jobs available, but we need to do a better job of steering students toward the right programs.  And (6) getting into the right college is increasingly important; only the best colleges can be a gateway to success. (7) Finally we do need to keep a college education affordable.

Sound familiar?  Bruni may have assembled all these propositions in one place, but I think each has become a commonplace in discussions of college, both informed and uninformed.  I’ll put Bruni in the informed camp.  Nevertheless, propositions (1) to (4) and (6) are seriously in error, (5) is suspect, and all of them taken together could easily lead us to wrong understandings of (7), the only one that is right.  Let’s take them one by one.

(1) College used to be a key to success.  Used to be? All the evidence I have seen leads to the conclusion that an increasing percentage of jobs require a bachelor’s degree, and that the gap between the compensation of college graduates and those with less education is widening.

(2) It was broadly accessible to all.  This is jaw dropping.  Just look at this graph.  It shows that over the past 40 years we have increased the percentage of those who have attained a BA by age 24. But it also shows that such attainment was much, much more available to students from higher income households, and it further shows that we haven’t made much recent progress on BA attainment.  Other countries are passing us by.  (The chart is from Postsecondary Education Opportunity, by the way.)

(3) But now, because of the rising cost of college, such an education has become a luxury item.   The word to notice here is “cost;” we need to be sure we pay attention to both costs (what colleges expend to provide the education) and prices (what parents and students have to pay), and these are quite separate subjects.   Yes, the sticker price colleges advertise they charge have gone up dramatically even adjusting for inflation.  But…: two big buts.  First, so far the prices students and parents actually pay has not gone up nearly as much because of the financial aid that governments and colleges and universities have provided.  And second, “since 1985, the average amount that public institutions spend on teaching each full-time student has barely budged, hovering around an inflation-adjusted $10,000.”  That’s from a recent report by the SHEEOS, the State Higher Education Executive Directors.  That is, costs really haven’t gone up, and I’ll add the same thing is true of private (independent) colleges and universities, too.

Costs aren’t going up, and the price increases have been more apparent than real, one we factor in financial aid.  On the other hand, prices are going to go up because state governments have been steadily decreasing their support for financing higher education.  More and more of the burden of payment is falling on students and their parents.  And that’s happening just as college-age students are increasingly come from low and middle-income families.  (This graph, too, is from Postsecondary Education Opportunity.)

(4) And the pay-off is no longer secure: many young graduates are finding it hard to find a decent job.  True, I guess, but who do you think would be hurt by the worst recession since the Depression?  How does the experience of the last few years help us understand whether the pay-off from college makes it a wise investment?  And of course the un- and under-employment rates of young people without a college degree are even high these past few years.

(5) Yes, there are good jobs available, but we need to do a better job of steering students toward the right programs.  Just as we can always do a better job of teaching and learning, we can always do a better job of advising students about where various educational programs may lead them.  But for the most part students aren’t going choosing programs leading toward the most-open, best-paying jobs because they arrive at college with poor preparation is science and math.  The students have already been derailed.  We won’t solve the problem simply through better “steering.”

(6) Getting into the right college is increasingly important; only the best colleges can be a gateway to success.  Oh dear.  Yes, as Bruni puts it, there is “ferociousness” in  “the race to get into elite universities. It’s madness out there.”  But that doesn’t mean that admissions frenzy to get into the “best” colleges makes any sense at all.  There is simply no evidence that students learn more or prosper more in future life as a consequence of getting accepted at the so-called best colleges and universities.

(7) Finally we do need to keep a college education affordable.  This one is right.  Yes we do need to redouble our efforts to keep college affordable, but not for the reasons Bruni advances.  It’s important because a college education is now and increasingly the gateway to a better life.

You can read a fuller version of my view of this matter in a recent speech I gave at Marian University, “A College Education for All: the Promise and the Prospects.”

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Access, Learning, Money Matters. Bookmark the permalink.

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