An Anti-College Backlash?

>Americans are finally starting to ask: "Is all this higher education really necessary?"

Since the appearance in The Atlantic of my essay "In The Basement of the Ivory Tower" (2008), in which I questioned the wisdom of sending seemingly everyone in the United States through the rigors of higher education, it's become increasingly apparent to me that I'm far from the only one with these misgivings. Indeed, to my surprise, I've discovered that rather than a lone crank, I'm a voice in a growing movement.

Also see:
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: The idea that a university education is for everyone is a destructive myth. An instructor at a "college of last resort" explains why.

The Truth About Harvard: It may be hard to get into Harvard, but it's easy to get out without learning much of enduring value at all. A recent graduate's report. By Ross Douthat

What Does College Teach? It's time to put an end to "faith-based" acceptance of higher education's quality. By Richard H. Hersh

I hadn't expected my essay, inspired by the frustrations of teaching students unprepared for the rigors of college-level work, to attract much notice. But the volume and vehemence of the feedback the piece generated was overwhelming. It drew more visitors than almost any other article on the Atlantic's web site in 2008, and provoked an avalanche of letters to the editor. It even started turning up in the syllabi of college writing classes, and on the agendas of educational conferences.

 In the months and years since then - and especially now, as I prepare to add to the critical tumult with a book expanding on that original article - I find myself noticing similar sentiments elsewhere. Is it merely a matter of my becoming so immersed in the subject that I'm seeing it everywhere? I don't think so. Start paying attention, and it becomes readily apparent that more and more Americans today are skeptical about the benefits of college.

"Some Say Bypassing a Higher Education Is Smarter Than Paying for a Degree," reads a recent headline in The Washington Post. (The article, which addresses everything from higher education's outsize price tag to its questionable correlation with career success, garnered more than 4,000 Facebook recommendations on the Post's web site.) And just last month, the Harvard Graduate School of Education published a study suggesting that (gasp!) four-year college is perhaps not for everyone. Rather, for a growing proportion of students, the report contends, internships, apprenticeships, and vocational training would be far more beneficial.

Even for the academically inclined, the value of college in this economic climate is increasingly subject to question. "Is Going to an Elite College Worth The Cost?," asked New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg in December. He surveyed economic studies, perused labor reports, and interviewed economists and sociologists to ascertain whether there's really a significant payoff for choosing a swanky private college over someplace less glamorous. The answer?  Inconclusive. Parents, of course, obsess over the Ivy League admissions game, carefully studying up on how to give their kids an edge. And U.S. News & World Report's annual college breakdown gets as much publicity these days as the Oscar nominations. But are those students fortunate enough to gain admission really getting an education worthy of the fuss? Reports of rampant grade inflation at many of these schools throws even a straight-A transcript from a prestigious university into question. (Some colleges, including Princeton, have taken to imposing limits on how many A's instructors can award in any course, while the University of North Carolina has resorted to including median class grades on students' transcripts so as to make it more readily apparent which A's were earned in easy courses.) And a new book by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus, Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, makes the case that students at elite colleges are being left to fend for themselves while their impressively credentialed professors take constant sabbaticals and leave the actual teaching to inexperienced assistants.

Also see:
What's Wrong With the American University System: An interview with Andrew Hacker, the author of Higher Education?

 Yet despite the mounting skepticism about the value of a college degree, and in the face of the economic downturn, colleges continue to demand ever higher fees, saddling graduates with crushing debt along with their diplomas. In June of last year the Federal Reserve released new figures showing that the nation's total student loan debt now sits at about $830 billion - for the first time surpassing the nation's credit card debt. Student loan debt, it should be noted, is in many respects less forgiving than credit card debt: "These loans typically can't be discharged in bankruptcy," explains the Wall Street Journal. "They have different repayment terms, some of which have heavy consequences for borrowers who miss payments." Some commentators have even suggested that the crimp the financial downturn is putting on students' ability to get loans may in fact be doing those students a favor. In a piece titled, "Huge Debt Incurred for College Tuition Just Doesn't Make the Grade," syndicated financial columnist Michelle Singletary writes, "I'll be honest. I think if college students and their parents have a harder time getting loans, that's a good thing. Perhaps now more people will stop and consider the long-term implications of taking on so much of this so-called good debt."

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Professor X teaches at a private college and at a community college in the northeastern United States.

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