A student moving out of Howard University during the coronavirus pandemic, Washington, D.C.

Patrick Semansky/AP Images

A student moving out of Howard University during the coronavirus pandemic, Washington, D.C., March 2020

Every fall I begin my freshman seminar on higher education by asking students to guess how many colleges in the United States admit fewer than 20 percent of their applicants. Estimates range from several hundred to a thousand.

The correct answer is forty-six.1 These schools represent between 1 and 2 percent of the roughly three thousand four-year higher-education institutions in the country. But they include the colleges that I attended, as did my parents and my children; I imagine that many readers of these pages attended them as well. I would also wager that many of us went to college when we were around eighteen, lived on campus, majored in the arts and sciences rather than in preprofessional fields, and received our degrees in four years.

We’re the exception, not the rule. Of the roughly 70 percent of American high school graduates who enroll in college, 40 percent attend community college, which is almost never residential; more than a quarter of undergraduates are twenty-five or older; most major in business, the health sciences, or other preprofessional subjects; and they take an average of six years to complete college, if they finish it at all. Indeed, as David Kirp shows in The College Dropout Scandal, nearly 40 percent of undergraduates leave without a degree. Thirty-four million Americans—over a tenth of the nation’s population—have some college credits but dropped out before graduating. They are nearly twice as likely as college graduates to be unemployed and four times more likely to default on student loans.

That’s a scandal for the nation, not just for higher education. We like to imagine college as an egalitarian force, which reduces the gap between rich and poor. But over the past four decades it has mostly served to reinforce or even to widen that gap. During these years—and for the first time in American history—a college degree became the sine qua non of middle-class stability and self-sufficiency. Yet rising tuition and declining government assistance has put the degree out of reach for many Americans; others have had to borrow huge sums, saddling their families and futures with crippling debt.2

The coronavirus pandemic has compounded these inequalities and thrown them into sharper relief. Some low-income students were stranded after their colleges closed, with no place to live and no way to leave; those who returned home often lacked computers, reliable Wi-Fi, or a quiet place to study when the colleges moved their classes online. If instruction remains online in the fall, even more students are likely to drop out. At this perilous juncture, we need to ask ourselves not just how we arrived here but also how we might see our way out.

America’s overall student debt burden recently topped $1.5 trillion, exceeding our collective debt on credit cards. Twenty-two percent of student loan borrowers are in default—that is, they have failed to make scheduled payments for an extended period of time—which is higher than the rate among homeowners. Student loan defaults are likely to increase even further now that the Trump administration has loosened restrictions on for-profit colleges, whose students have the highest default rate of all. Even when they do not default, people graduating with student loan debt are less likely to own homes, attend graduate school, or save for retirement; they’re also more likely to delay marriage and parenthood, as the economist and former college president James V. Koch writes in The Impoverishment of the American College Student.

The debt burden falls most heavily on people of color, especially women. Four out of five African-Americans graduate college with debt; on average they carry 70 percent more debt than white students do. That’s in part because they more often attend for-profit institutions. According to the calculations of the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom in her bracing study of the for-profits, Lower Ed, there were more low-income black and Hispanic women enrolled in for-profit institutions in 2008 than in four-year public and private nonprofit colleges combined. It makes sense for them to choose for-profit schools, which have streamlined the process for obtaining federal loans; this money can also be used for rent, child care, and the myriad other expenses that poor and working-class Americans struggle to pay. One student tells Cottom that the online class format favored by many for-profits also allowed him to recycle work from previous courses, so he could obtain “those letters after your name”—that is, a degree—without cutting back hours at his day job, which would have made the whole process even harder to afford.

Among low-income students, only those attending highly selective colleges manage to graduate without significant debt. That’s because these schools—call them the Fortunate 46—are wealthy enough to award substantial scholarships.3 But many poor students at selective schools face an added challenge, which is captured by Paul Tough in The Years That Matter Most, his book about “how college makes or breaks us.” Often the first members of their families to attend college, many low-income students at elite schools must learn the academic skills that are second nature to their well-heeled peers. How do you take notes in class? Form a study group? Interact with a professor? When others fly home or to a warm-weather resort over spring break, the cash-strapped students stay in the dorms and try to find enough to eat, as campus cafeterias are often closed. Meanwhile, their college experience frequently creates a barrier between them and their families, who are alternately envious and dismissive of what they have accomplished. Many struggle with imposter syndrome, wondering whether they should be at such a rarified place at all. “It felt like I didn’t belong,” one student tells Tough. “It felt like this was a school made for valedictorians, and I should have started at community college.”


Many other students wonder how they will settle up when the bill comes due. Starting in the 1980s the federal government steadily replaced grants to students with loans, transforming what was formerly seen as a public responsibility into a private one. During these same years, state legislatures raided higher-education budgets to pay for roads, prisons, and other allegedly more pressing matters. Public colleges made up the difference by raising tuition, which has climbed to over $30,000 per year in some states. Families are now asked to invest—quite literally—in their children’s higher education from the time of birth.

But that kind of planning is beyond the reach of most Americans, who simply lack enough financial stability to save for college. As of 2013, only 3 percent of families invested in a 529 or related type of tax-advantaged education fund. So parents of college-going students take out new mortgages on their homes and piece together various loans with their children, who remain financially dependent long into adulthood. The young people moving back home after college aren’t lazy any more than the parents borrowing against their homes are spendthrifts; they just don’t have better options. That’s the theme of Indebted, a haunting book by the anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom, who interviewed 160 families about their efforts to finance college. Decent-paying jobs now demand a college credential, but individuals have to figure out how to pay for one by themselves. They engage in a version of “social speculation,” as Zaloom calls it, investing in college but unsure how to maximize its return. Should they borrow for an expensive college or choose a cheaper one? Who should bear the costs—students, their parents, or both? Everyone is flying by the seat of their pants and watching their wallets at the same time.

Taken together, these books paint an altogether gloomy picture of American higher education. Once imagined as an engine of mobility, college now augments inequality. And instead of providing economic security, it provokes anxiety. The woes of the well-to-do receive the most attention in the popular press, which runs frequent features about angst and depression among overscheduled rich high school kids taking six or eight Advanced Placement courses in an attempt to gain a coveted slot in the Fortunate 46. Not content to game the system by hiring SAT tutors and college counselors, a handful of desperate parents recently paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to fake their children’s athletic prowess and test scores. Of course, these are the people with the least to worry about. Most families don’t have the luxury to fret about going to one of the best colleges; instead, they wonder whether they can pay for college at all. Underwritten mainly by private dollars, college is no longer regarded as a public good: it is a personal investment on the part of individuals and their families, not a collective endeavor that benefits all of us. In a 2018 survey, six of ten Americans agreed that higher education is “headed in the wrong direction.”4 Are we good enough to change direction, and to reinvigorate the idea that college is something we owe to one another and not just to ourselves?

I ask that question as a faculty member at one of the elite schools, which have not done themselves proud on these grounds. With a few notable exceptions, including the University of California’s campuses at Berkeley and Los Angeles and the military academies at West Point and Annapolis, almost all of the highly selective colleges are privately owned and operated. But they benefit from the public purse in a number of ways, starting with the tax break they receive on their enormous endowments. (At last count, my own school’s stood at almost $15 billion.) These colleges are proud of their commitment to racial and ethnic diversity, as any university brochure will confirm. What they don’t tell you is that most of the smiling faces in this glorious rainbow share the same well-to-do class background. As the Harvard economist Raj Chetty has shown, over two thirds of students at the most selective colleges come from the country’s top income quintile, while only 4 percent come from the lowest one.


The concentration of rich kids at elite schools has spawned a cottage industry of critics, led by the Yale Law School professor Daniel Markovits, who argues that America’s upper class uses higher education to pass on privilege in the guise of meritocracy.5 Tough’s book echoes this concern. Many poor students admitted to rich schools experience extraordinary success after college, which reminds us that these institutions can indeed serve as engines of social mobility. But that doesn’t happen nearly enough; instead, schools reserve their advantages mostly for people who already have them. “We seem to have reconstructed, in the guise of openness and equality, an old and established aristocracy, one in which money begets money,” Tough concludes.

At most flagship state universities, Koch notes in The Impoverishment of the American College Student, administrators have recruited a wealthier clientele and admitted fewer students who qualify for Pell Grants and other federal aid. That’s largely because poorer students have lower average test scores and post-graduation incomes, which bring down schools’ rankings in US News and World Report. Almost everyone in higher education simultaneously reviles and reveres the US News juggernaut: at my prior institution, a dean often told us that the rankings were illegitimate and that ours was too low. To be fair, public university officials are also hamstrung by plummeting allocations from their state legislatures. Koch shows, however, that many public colleges have increased tuition beyond what would be necessary to compensate for those losses. Rather than increasing access for low-income students, they have invested in other priorities. “Did declining state support force us to play Division I basketball?” asks a university president quoted by Koch. “Did the legislature require us to build that nifty exercise facility you passed on your way in? Did budget cuts cause us to start our new doctoral programs?” Koch adds that the president “wishes to remain unnamed,” and it’s easy to see why: the more that colleges invest in these kinds of programs and facilities, the less is left over to help poor students go there. Compounding the problem, some public universities provide scholarships to residents meeting certain academic standards regardless of need. That means more upper-income students, who in some cases end up paying less—believe it or not—than low-income students do.

When poorer students do enroll, Tough shows in The Years That Matter Most, colleges don’t do nearly enough to help them succeed. A few institutions such as Georgia State and Long Beach State Universities have radically reduced their dropout rates by providing tutoring, smaller classes, and special advisers for first-generation and low-income students. They also use a range of digital “nudges,” including text messages offering help to students who fail tests and video testimonies from successful minority students describing their initial struggles. But this “student success movement”—as Tough calls it—remains in its infancy. Like the families they serve, many colleges are simply too busy trying to make ends meet to carve out extra resources for at-risk students. Still others are probably fine with taking thousands of dollars from people who are likely to fail, because they can easily enroll someone else to take their place. If the new student graduates, the school’s retention rate—and its US News ranking—goes up. Everyone walks away happy, except the person who has flunked out.

Here we might pause to ask why we need a “student success movement” at all. Shouldn’t every institution prioritize student achievement and retention, Kirp asks in The College Dropout Scandal, especially given the huge sums that people are borrowing for college? Of course they should. But even when administrators make good-faith efforts to assist their least advantaged students, they run into a formidable obstacle: the faculty. Rewarded mainly for publication rather than instruction, most professors simply aren’t invested enough in student outcomes to take an active part in improving them. Across every kind of four-year institution, from small liberal arts schools to huge state universities, professors’ rank and salary vary directly with the amount of time they devote to research: the faculty who bury themselves in the laboratory or library earn the most, and the ones devoted to teaching make the least.6

So faculty members have little financial or professional incentive to assist underserved students, or even to inform themselves about the problems students face. As one university provost tells Kirp, most professors know little about how universities actually work. They are experts in their respective disciplines, not in higher education. The Columbia professor Andrew Delbanco began his 2012 book, College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, by describing a faculty meeting long ago at which somebody raised the question of “need-blind” student admission. Delbanco didn’t understand what that meant or why it mattered, he admits, so he resolved to find out.7

The heroes of the books under review are the handful of faculty members who, like Delbanco, have taught themselves about the struggles of disadvantaged students and have devised new ways to assist them. Both Kirp and Tough praise the University of Texas chemist David Laude, who grew up working-class in California’s Central Valley and struggled when he arrived at the University of the South, an affluent private college in Tennessee. Laude saw his younger self in the UT students failing his large freshman survey course, who came mostly from low-income families and had scored below average on the SAT in high school. Curious about how he might help them, he did what any good scientist would do: he devised an experiment. In 1999 he put students with low SAT scores in a smaller section of the course, where they received extra support from peer tutors and faculty advisers. The students earned the same average grades as the people in the larger, lecture-only section; they returned to school the next year at the same rate as the average for the university, where low-income students had long been at greater risk of dropping out; three years later they graduated at a higher rate than the students in the larger section.

Appointed in 2012 as the university’s “graduation-rate champion,” Laude worked to sprinkle these practices across the institution. Six years later, its four-year graduation rate had climbed from 51 to 70 percent. Not surprisingly, poor and minority students showed the biggest gains. The mathematician Uri Treisman, a colleague of Laude at UT, tracked down struggling students and held special Saturday meetings with them. Like Laude, Treisman came from a working-class family. His path led out of Brooklyn to a kibbutz in Israel and then to a groundskeeping job at Los Angeles City College, where a math professor noticed him listening to a lecture outside of class and encouraged Treisman to join it.

Treisman eventually obtained a Ph.D. at Berkeley but never felt that he really belonged there. So he can empathize with students like Ivonne, a young Latina woman whom Tough follows through Treisman’s calculus class. Ivonne gets a poor test grade early in the course and is convinced she can’t succeed. But Treisman nurtures her steadily, and her confidence grows. “It felt like things were finally making sense,” she tells Tough. “I was answering more questions than I was asking.” When she earns an A in the class—along with a congratulatory, I-knew-you-could-do-it e-mail from Treisman—we feel like celebrating with her.

Under the proper care and instruction, then, almost anyone can succeed in college. But do faculty members believe that? To absolve themselves of responsibility for students’ academic performance, many professors invoke the oldest schoolhouse myth in the book: I taught it, but they didn’t learn it. In a paper quoted by Kirp, just 20 percent of surveyed two- and four-year college professors cited institutional reasons for student failure; most blamed the students’ lack of skill or effort. That fails to account for success stories like the University of Texas—where targeted efforts under Laude’s direction raised the black graduation rate from 37 to 58 percent—or for dismal situations like the University of Akron, which, in Kirp’s calculus, graduated just 13 percent of its African-American students. In a now-classic 1977 study of professors at the University of Nebraska, 94 percent said they taught better than their colleagues did; in the classroom, as in Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, almost all of us think we’re above average.

In The College Dropout Scandal, Kirp points out that the only way we can maintain that fiction is by willful ignorance about teaching itself. A growing body of research demonstrates that “active learning” strategies work best for most students: we learn more when we are solving problems or interacting with others than when we are just listening to the professor drone on. But that is precisely what many faculty members continue to do. College professors routinely flout the science of learning in their own classrooms, even as they scoff at anti-vaxxers and climate-change denialists for mocking or ignoring scientific expertise.

Digital nudges and peer tutoring can take us only so far, one dean tells Kirp; without a “coalition of the willing” on the faculty, underprivileged students will continue to languish. Some professors simply aren’t willing to alter their practices in ways that would assist the least advantaged people in their charge; others fear that giving greater attention to teaching would inhibit their research, along with their chances for promotion. Still others confront enormous class sizes, which do not lend themselves to the intimate face-to-face instruction that underprepared students need. And let’s not forget that about half of college teachers are adjuncts, often stringing together classes at multiple campuses where they lack time and space to meet with students.8 No wonder so many students fail.

Given all of this bad news, why do millions of Americans continue to seek—and pay for—higher education? The standard answer is that they’re anxious about their economic futures. A college degree seems to promise higher wages along with an insurance policy against layoffs, health care emergencies, and all of the other unforeseen catastrophes that can bring ruin and destitution. That’s certainly what motivates low-income students at the for-profit schools, who are living closer to the edge than anyone else. Dispensing with the student-as-victim narrative that permeates most reporting on the for-profits, Cottom shows in Lower Ed that people have sound reasons for attending them. If you’re a poor or working-class student, you’ll often choose the institution that can promise you the fastest turnaround on a federally backed loan. A large fraction of recipients default on these loans, killing the dream of security that brought them to college in the first place. But Cottom argues that the fault lies less with the “predatory” for-profits—to borrow another favorite metaphor of the muckrakers—than with our so-called gig economy, which simply does not generate enough steady employment to sustain American workers.

Except for Starbucks and a handful of other companies, the American private sector has not invested seriously in providing higher education for its workforce; employees make more when they have college degrees, but they typically have to obtain those degrees on their own. Depending on their goals and circumstances, some of these people might be better off with technical-skill certificates and other kinds of vocational training. Yet overall, Cottom persuasively argues, a hike in the minimum wage and a real federal jobs program would do more for the working class than any kind of higher education could possibly accomplish. “I’ve led grown men in the battlefield,” one of Cottom’s sources tells her, explaining his decision to seek a for-profit degree. “I’ve been directly responsible for soldiers’ lives. I needed a piece of paper that would translate my expertise to employer terms.” But as Cottom adds, what this accomplished military veteran really needed was not to need a degree at all. “If we have a shitty credentialing system, in the case of for-profit colleges, then it is likely because we have a shitty labor market,” she concludes. No amount of tinkering in the higher-education market is likely to change that.

Among middle-class families, the story is different but still breaks your heart. They tend to see college not in strictly vocational terms but in personal ones: the goal is to help individuals develop their passions and potentials. That’s what Zaloom’s sources tell her in Indebted, over and over again: college is where you can become your true and full self. It’s an intimate and almost spiritual investment, not a financial one, which is why families will bear almost any burden to send their children to college. But it raises enormous economic dilemmas. The parents struggle to provide for their present-day needs—and to set aside money for retirement—while simultaneously assisting their children. Often kept in the dark about their own family finances, the children are dismayed by the debt they may suddenly assume. It makes them think about college as preparation for work, contrary to its more transcendent purposes.

Consider the sad saga of Kerry Lynn and David, a couple profiled by Zaloom. Their son Caleb wanted to attend an expensive private liberal arts college, and they wanted him to pursue his dreams. So they took out loans and committed to paying them when he graduated, even though the loans were in his name. Kerry Lynn’s father helped out, contributing to college savings accounts for his grandchildren; so did Caleb, who took on a wide range of work-study jobs at college. It all seemed to work, until it didn’t. Caleb’s sister became addicted to drugs while still in high school. Her parents liquidated her college savings to help pay for her treatment; they also took out an equity line of credit on their house, and removed money from Kerry Lynn’s retirement account. Their marriage fell apart under the strain, which was exacerbated when Kerry Lynn’s father developed Alzheimer’s disease and could no longer assist her financially; instead, anything she might have inherited from him went toward paying for his care. By the end of the story, we’re not sure whether Caleb’s parents will be able to pay off his loans—as they had promised—or how they will stay solvent themselves. “Life changes a lot,” Kerry Lynn tells Zaloom. “It isn’t always what you think it’s going to be. The future is uncertain.”

Indeed it is. We might forgive Caleb—and his parents—if they conclude that the whole liberal arts dream was a huge mistake, and that he should have majored in a “practical” field at a less expensive school. Nineteen percent of college students graduate with degrees in business, making it the most popular major in the United States; the next most popular are the health-related professions, at 12 percent. But it’s hardly clear that the careers that students imagine for themselves when they choose these majors will even exist in the future. A good liberal arts education can provide the skills employers say they want, especially clear expression and a capacity to work with others.9 In a tough economy, that’s a tough sell to most American students. Awash in debt, they choose “applied” majors—say, “organizational management” or “digital media”—that sound more practical than they probably are. Begun in a quest for self-knowledge and endless possibility, college ends in a grim and often frustrated search for security and self-sufficiency.

Perhaps we should be grateful that the dream of college as a personal journey lives on at all. Americans still believe deeply in higher education, even when—or, perhaps, especially when—they have fewer sound economic reasons for doing so. According to a 2019 survey, students on average believe it will take six years to pay off their loans; in reality the typical repayment period is about twenty years.10 To be sure, college graduates who pay off their loans (as most still do) vastly exceed nongraduates in pay, homeownership, and other indicators. But as tuition and student debt continue to skyrocket, it’s worth asking how much longer we can sustain this system.

In response to the coronavirus crisis, the Trump administration recently announced that borrowers will be able to suspend their federal student loan payments without penalty and without accruing interest for at least sixty days; after that, the president said, he might extend the policy for a longer period of time. The presumed Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden, has proposed an income-based repayment plan that will radically reduce student-debt burdens. Embracing an approach long supported the more progressive wing of his party, Biden has also pledged to make public colleges and universities free for students from families with incomes up to $125,000. Nearly everyone seeking federal and state office now promises to improve college “access,” which has become another popular buzzword in higher education.

But access to what? Will more and more instruction remain online after the pandemic, enriching digital platform providers but reducing the opportunities for real learning? And why should taxpayers pick up the tab? A century ago, this country decided to invest in free public high schools because citizens were persuaded that secondary education would benefit all of us. Now we find ourselves at a very different juncture, where the economy is demanding college degrees but the polity has balked at funding them. We’ll never make the case for free college until we make it better for students and their families with the tools that we already have. That would be a welcome first step toward convincing a wary public that college should be a public good.