That was the question the NY Times asked this week:
This week, the Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum said that it was snobbish to think that everyone should aspire to go to college because some people have skills and interests that aren’t academic. But is enough done to help those people secure income without higher education? Is the value of a college degree exaggerated? If not, are colleges doing enough to help disadvantaged students, and others, succeed?
It’s also a question we’ll asking at “Access, Competition, and For-Profit Higher Education” this fall because it is a question that gets to the heart of most contemporary debates in higher education.
Missing from many of these debates is a basic truth: there isn’t enough upward social mobility to go around (to that end I recommend “The Coming Jobs War” by Jim Clifton).
I am a devout believer in education for the sake of edification and knowledge. However, I am not a huge fan of acquiring that edification at today’s college prices. That is true for not-for-profits as well as for-profits. The reality is that most people attending college are doing so because they hope to exchange that acquired knowledge (or social capital or credential depending on your ideological position) for material capital. Not all higher education is equipped to facilitate that kind of exchange. That’s something we seem to intuit. Less often intuited is that this is not entirely the fault of higher education but of the greater U.S. economy.
What are the legitimate options for the millions of people who need upward mobility and not an expensive credential? What industries will absorb that labor? For generations excess labor kind of hung out in colleges waiting for a labor opportunity to materialize. And for many generations that’s mostly worked out although differently for different kinds of people and absolutely with different outcomes for different kinds of people. But we may be facing a real possibility of a college system that cannot continue to absorb the millions who have been shut out of the labor market indefinitely in hopes of some innovation that will expand the market.
Any discussion of whether or not everyone should go to college should probably also be asking, “where else will they go?”
That’s the question for the ages.
Tressie McMillan Cottom