The Great Higher Education Debate

There's been a surfeit of interesting commentary lately that touches on higher education, and more specifically the question of whether too many people are going to college: Start with Professor X's view from "the basement of the ivory tower" in the latest Atlantic and Charles Murray's essay on "educational romanticism" in the New Criterion, then take up these posts from Rod Dreher (and the accompanying comment threads) and Russell Arben Fox, and then see Matt and (especially) Kevin Carey, who pushes back vigorously against the thesis that we're trying to push too many people through higher education.

My own somewhat mealy-mouthed take is that Carey and Charles Murray are both right: There are people going to college who shouldn't be and there are people who aren't going to college who should be; there are people in Professor X's classes who deserve better than a "college of last resort" and there are people in Professor X's classes who would be better off doing something completely different with their time. Which means that I think we ought to be spending more public dollars on the sort of colleges that educate "lower-income students, first-generation students, disadvantaged students, working students, immigrant students, minority students, older students, disabled students, students from often dismal high schools," to quote Carey's litany, and fewer public dollars on the kind of schools that exist to provide the "college experience" to the children of the mass upper class. (More public money for Virginia's community colleges, in other words, and less for a school like UVA - or again, more public money for people who want to go to school part-time or over the internet, and fewer public dollars for kids who want to spend four years on a brick-and-mortar campus.) But I also think that we ought to become vastly more flexible in our understanding of what constitutes an ideal post-high school education, and what our high schools should be preparing their students for - which means more vocational education, more shop class as soulcraft, and fewer attempts to pretend that everyone can read Hamlet, or score above the national average on the Math SAT.