This kerfuffle strikes me as especially sad and emblematic of the shallow cliche-ness of public debate. It’s not really a partisan issue, but so ingrained has it become in our notion of The American Dream that whoever is fool enough to enter the breach gets nailed by the other side. Santorum is fool enough, and the Dems ruthless enough.
There is a higher education bubble. Too many colleges. Too many degrees in complacency studies. Too many young men and women taking on too much debt too early in life for said degrees. Too many administrators raising tuition faster than inflation for decades – rent capturing the lion’s share of federal aid.
Alternative methods of gaining the benefits of an education are coming – online, or part-time, or done with more breaks for work/internships, or with time off for travel/missionary work – to replace the vested interests protecting the racket.
Not everyone should “go to college” in the traditional sense – 4 (or more!) years of debt-fueled break from reality once they turn 18, at a time when they maybe have a poor sense of what to do with their lives. Some of us would be much better served learning a trade that can’t be outsourced overseas.
But it’s tough to resist. So many employers look at college as a “finishing school” or a proxy for the aptitude tests they don’t dare give to potential hires, that there’s legitimate concern (or even fear) driving parents down this route. On the one hand it’s hard to see it changing; on the other hand, anything that simply can’t go on forever… won’t. It’s a bubble fueled by
Fannie Sallie Mae.
Education, yes; college as traditionally defined, no.
Ramesh Ponnuru says Santorum “…deserves credit for challenging a false idea, but deserves blame for doing so in a way that is easy to dismiss.” Here is Mr. Ponnuru, writing two years ago in Time magazine:
Our high college drop-out rate — 40% of kids who enroll in college don’t get a degree within six years — may be a sign that we’re trying to push too many people who aren’t suited for college to enroll. It has been estimated that, in 2007, most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them: another sign that we are pushing kids into college who will not get much out of it but debt.
The benefits of putting more people in college are also oversold. Part of the college wage premium is an illusion. People who go to college are, on average, smarter than people who don’t. In an economy that increasingly rewards intelligence, you’d expect college grads to pull ahead of the pack even if their diplomas signified nothing but their smarts. College must make many students more productive workers. But at least some of the apparent value of a college degree, and maybe a lot of it, reflects the fact that employers can use it as a rough measure of job applicants’ intelligence and willingness to work hard.