‘Is College Worth It?’ and ‘College (Un)bound’

Bennett’s basic argument is a familiar one, at least from conservative pundits: “Too many people are going to college.” In the search for employment, he believes, a college education confers less advantage than is commonly assumed and leaves students with crushing debt. He would prefer to see the United States emulate countries like Germany, where most young people are tracked into vocational training, and he wants more Americans who do go to college to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics rather than what he calls “irrelevant material.” Before attempting college at all, students should “critically evaluate the data: student-loan debt, return on investment, lifetime salary earnings, academic performance, skills training . . . and so on.” This seems an improbable strategy for most adolescents and a surrender of hopes and dreams, especially for those whose parents have not gone to college themselves.

Selingo doesn’t propose early sorting, but he agrees that the roughly $1 trillion students owe to private and public lenders are often wasted on empty pleasures, citing as an example the 645-foot-long river-rafting feature in the “leisure pool” at Texas Tech. My own sense is that most colleges are filled with hard-working students and teachers. At underfunded, overcrowded community colleges, which enroll more than a third of the almost 18 million American undergraduates, there aren’t many leisure pools.

But student debt is certainly too high, and Bennett and Selingo are right that the financial structure of college is breaking down. Private universities face a decline in federal dollars attached to research grants; endowment returns are unlikely to achieve the double-digit norms of a few years ago; and the relentless rise in tuition (which Bennett blames partly on the ready availability of government grants and loans) is unsustainable. At public institutions, which enroll three times as many students as private colleges, the problems are worse. After a sharp drop in the state appropriations that once kept the price of attendance affordable, tuition there has been rising even faster.

Bennett approaches these issues from a strong anti-government, pro-business perspective that leads to some odd contradictions. He commends for-profit universities even though at many for-profits graduation rates are low and student debt levels high. He scolds the federal government for violating “simple, sound banking principles” by lending money to students with “no credit history” but praises “private banks that, at large risk to themselves,” do the same thing.

Even if there were a quick fix for the fiscal problems, other problems remain. According to Selingo, today’s students “regard their professors as service providers, just like a cashier at the supermarket or a waiter in a restaurant.” He sees “a power shift in the classroom” as students evaluate their teachers through questionnaires “eerily similar to customer satisfaction surveys from department stores.” And, all too often, when professors evaluate students we know the result: grade inflation.

Andrew Delbanco’s most recent book is “College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be.” He is director of American Studies at Columbia University.

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