Should Everyone Go To College?

May 10, 2013

Or perhaps this should be titled “College Costs: the Dishonest Conversation (3)” (see below).

Must reading this week is a report from The Brookings Institution by Stephanie Owen and Isabel Sawhill titled Should Everyone Go To College?  Theirs is a financial lens: they focus on whether college is a good investment, on whether the rate of return in future earnings makes the expense of paying for college a good one.  (Thus, any civic, social or personal benefits are set to one side.) In their abstract, they forefront this as their conclusion:

While the average return to obtaining a college degree is clearly positive, we emphasize that it is not universally so. For certain schools, majors, occupations, and individuals,college may not be a smart investment. By telling all young people that they should go to college no matter what, we are actually doing some of them a disservice.

Then I urge reading Dylan Matthews take on the Owen-Sawhill report in the Washington Posts’s Wonkblog. He disagrees with their lead, saying:

But the most interesting part of it is that it shows that the majority of people should. Indeed, the report is more of a testament to the poor quality of some colleges and universities than to the inappropriateness of college for a large number of students.

And he concludes:

Owen and Sawhill’s report is important and worth taking seriously, but trying to make it into a case against college is wrongheaded. College really does come with additional earnings, and no research to date has persuasively refuted that as a general point.

Let’s take stock of the dishonest conversation. As a nation, our approach to making a college education affordable and accessible for all is collapsing. It is collapsing largely because (1) governments, especially state governments, are contributing less to paying for higher education than in the past, and (2) the young people of college age are coming from families that have lower incomes because of the worsening distribution of income in the United States. We don’t want to face those blunt facts, however. So begins the dishonest conversation, which features several artful dodges:

(1) We hear assertions that the problem is lack of transparency: that students and parents do not know which are the affordable good colleges. And so we have the initiative of a federal net price calculator. Yes, lack of transparency is a problem, but more transparency will not solve the big problem.

(2) We hear assertions that college costs continue to escalate at an unacceptably fast pace, much faster than inflation. Such assertions are largely illustrated with data about sticker prices, not net prices. They do not include financial aid, and once that is included, shows that the cost of a college education is not increasing faster than inflation.  And the largest increases in net costs are happening at public institutions coping with the withdrawal of state assistance.

(3) We hear assertions that new developments in technology — like MOOCs — will decrease the cost of college, making it again affordable. Something interesting is happening with technology in education, but it is unlikely to lessen costs for most students.

(4) And now we hear assertions that maybe everyone does not need a college education. Let’s just move the goalposts when the going gets tough, even when the data continue to show that nearly everyone benefits from a college education.

Better: let’s admit we need a new approach to financing a college education for everyone. Let’s stop the dishonest conversation.

Earlier posts on College Costs: The Dishonest Conversation are here and here.

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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).
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