The Case for College

The Case for College

It’s a perverse state of affairs: At a time when more people aspire to college than ever before, college seems farther out of reach than ever before. Some conclude that college itself has become a bad investment and that the push to get many more young people into college is wrong-headed. That conclusion jumps the gun.

This is not to argue that the college critics don’t have a point. College tuition and fees have continued to rise much faster than inflation over the past 10 years. 

It’s hard to imagine a more pitiable figure than the first-generation college grad, who, saddled with crushing debt, tries to land a job in the current market. That is until we consider the huge numbers of college dropouts who have only debt to show for their foray into college.

College costs are weighing heavily on more than just low-income students. Almost three in four college applicants surveyed by the Princeton Review this year said: “The economy has affected their decisions about college.” 

Eight in ten of their parents expect to spend more than $75K on four years of tuition, room, and board. (The Review drew its survey sample from people who bought its college guides, so the sample might skew towards wealthier families.)

Such bracing numbers have fueled strong criticism of the “college for all” agenda. Many young people who struggle to get BA’s for which they’re neither financially or academically prepared, the argument goes, would be much better off going to technical school. The broader argument? Some kids–smart and motivated kids at that–are just not cut out for college.

That may well be true, but we have to consider just who does and doesn’t go to college. How many upper-middle-class parents would say that their kids are not cut out for college? How many of their kids would agree?

The reality is that class and income still determine who does and doesn’t attend college. Low-income kids have fewer role models, less money, and less knowledge about what it takes to get into and succeed in college. 

All too often, they also leave high school without the academic foundation they need to succeed in higher education. Unless we change those conditions, we will succumb to what Anthony Carnevale has called “the intergenerational reproduction of elites and society of BA haves and BA have-nots.” Say what you will about the value of a BA, it is still a gateway to the lion’s share of high paying jobs.

So let’s not simply push low-income students into expensive BA programs whether or not they have any chance of succeeding in them. But above all, let’s not give up on the goal of preparing all students for college regardless of where they live or how much money their parents make.

We can’t count ourselves successful until income has nothing to do with college attendance and success.

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