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What Is College Worth?

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.


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