I’ve recently been reading a lot about the value of a college education — it was a major issue during the most recent Democratic primary campaign. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders proposed free federally funded college for all, and Hillary Clinton managed both to change her position on the issue and reap none of the benefits — her plan was confusing and a lot less easy to explain than his plan of waving his hands and demanding the government make college free. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has passed a plan to make public college free for all New York residents. Going off of the number of “Bernie” and plaintively defiant “I’m With Her” stickers I see around campus, I think it’s fair to assume that the majority of Swarthmore students enthusiastically back these policies.
The impulses behind these views are often laudable: a sense that for education to be fair it must be equally accessible to all; the belief that college access is one of the best ways to fight income inequality and increase social mobility; the belief that education is objectively good and should be shared as widely as possible. The problem is that our higher education system rarely accomplishes any of these goals. In fact, evidence increasingly shows that college does more harm than good to many people, that increasing enrollment would not in fact significantly reduce income inequality or increase mobility, and most importantly, that the vast majority of students simply don’t learn very much. All of these factors should make those who support expanded college access much more modest about what they think it can achieve and make us at Swarthmore rethink why we are here.
Many Americans look at data that shows the “college premium” has never been higher and conclude that the only way to get ahead in the modern economy is for more people to go to college. However, expanding access actually decreases the benefits of going to school. George Mason University economist Bryan Kaplan, writes in The Atlantic, that worldwide, an extra year of education raises an individual’s income 8 to 11 percent. Applied to an entire population, the benefit shrinks drastically, down to 1 to 3 percent. The more people with degrees, the less a degree is worth, which leads to an arms race for more and more degrees, a problem called credential inflation. Researchers have found that in 500 job types, the average education level has increased by 1.2 years. The problem is that most of the jobs didn’t change much over the decades. People have been spending more time in school to get jobs that are essentially unchanged. There is a real human cost to all of this: 40 percent of college students do not graduate in six years and pile up mountains of debt the entire time; not to mention the moral problem of pushing people into an environment for which they are unequipped and unlikely to succeed. In a 2008 essay for The Atlantic titled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” an anonymous English professor at a lower-tier college describes the pain and disappointment involved in failing students out of a class they never should have been in but took for career advancement, or a graduation requirement, or because they came from a culture that viewed college as both a universal right and a need.
Part of the reason that our society persists in the belief that expanded higher education is preferable is the American desire to eschew elitism — it may seem classist to admit that some people simply aren’t cut out for college. But the belief that to be socially respectable one needs to have graduated college or work a “credentialed” job strikes me as far more classist. It may also reflect the growing conflation of intelligence and educational accomplishment with virtue, especially in liberal circles. The emerging class of Americans that British writer David Goodhart calls “anywheres,” the ones who occupy positions of power in law, politics, and cultural institutions, define themselves by their education. Racially diverse, comfortable with rapid change, and at home in essentially any major city or university, they make educational attainment the gold standard of status according to New York Times columnist David Brooks. Think workers at Google, doctors at Pennsylvania Hospital, staffers at the U.S. Senate, or professors at, well, Swarthmore. But many of these “anywheres” actually don’t spend their lives anywhere; they spend them in areas and institutions where people like themselves are concentrated. They don’t hold any malice toward less educated Americans, but it is very difficult for them to envision a lifestyle outside of their own. So expanded access to college is extended in the grand tradition of the “American dream.” However, this interpretation of the ideal is neither historically rooted nor, realistic.
Some of the most sobering research also points to how little college students actually retain. Outside of specialized fields such as engineering and some fields of mathematics that actually use the skills they learn in college to do their jobs, college students actually forget almost everything they learn. A 2003 Department of Education study found only a third of college graduates scored “proficient” on a literacy test, and a 1980s Harvard study found students’ “critical thinking” and “applied reasoning” scores were essentially unchanged freshman year to senior year. The only areas where college students see modest gains are extremely basic skills like literacy and numeracy and highly specialized skills from their major. But for most students, the knowledge they gain is rarely applied later in life and is quickly forgotten. The value of college, beyond signaling to employers that the graduate is smart because they were able to graduate, is highly nebulous. So why should policemen and firefighters, or bank tellers, or executive assistants, have to go through years of expensive college and struggle to pass classes that are at best tangentially related to their actual career? We don’t need every city hall worker to have read Plato’s “Republic,” and we certainly shouldn’t have to make them fork over thousands to do so in order to work at a Public Utilities Commission.
We need to seriously think about ways to improve education that move outside of the traditional classroom and college paradigm: trade schools and remote courses could offer cheaper and more specialized courses that actually prepare people for careers. A restructuring of how we pay for college is also in order, as the system of guaranteed federal loans we currently use have proved to be a massive cash boon to universities and an equally massive inflationary pressure on tuition. Replacing the loans with straight money transfers, as Senator Sanders would have us do, would only exacerbate the inflation problem. There are some creative solutions out there, such as income share agreements in which private investors pay for college in exchange for a share of future income, but few politicians are willing to stray outside political orthodoxy. Marco Rubio is a notable exception in his advocacy for vocational schools and apprenticeships.
So should we at Swarthmore simply throw up our hands and pass/fail anything not narrowly related to our future job? No, because to see college as a place to prepare for work does college a disservice. As much as liberal arts colleges talk a big game about teaching us “how to think” and to be “generalists,” a degree from a prestigious institution like Swarthmore is mostly a confirmation of preexisting intelligence. But education isn’t primarily an economic good: students are better off having read Locke or taken a linguistics course, even if they forget most of it later because it can be a gateway to deeper thinking and important knowledge. It just won’t matter much in most jobs.The lesson, however, is to know that education can’t stop once the four years at Swarthmore are up. To be educated in the holistic sense and to be able to evaluate ideas critically, connect concepts across disciplines, learn from the arts, history, and the sciences is an ongoing process that only persists with the practice of applying it to our own lives.