Should Everyone Go to College?

"Professor X," not only the world's greatest telepath but also the pseudonym of an actual professor says no in the new Atlantic:

Sending everyone under the sun to college is a noble initiative. Academia is all for it, naturally. Industry is all for it; some companies even help with tuition costs. Government is all for it; the truly needy have lots of opportunities for financial aid. The media applauds it—try to imagine someone speaking out against the idea. To oppose such a scheme of inclusion would be positively churlish. But one piece of the puzzle hasn’t been figured into the equation, to use the sort of phrase I encounter in the papers submitted by my English 101 students. The zeitgeist of academic possibility is a great inverted pyramid, and its rather sharp point is poking, uncomfortably, a spot just about midway between my shoulder blades.

For I, who teach these low-level, must-pass, no-multiple-choice-test classes, am the one who ultimately delivers the news to those unfit for college: that they lack the most-basic skills and have no sense of the volume of work required; that they are in some cases barely literate; that they are so bereft of schemata, so dispossessed of contexts in which to place newly acquired knowledge, that every bit of information simply raises more questions. They are not ready for high school, some of them, much less for college.

I am the man who has to lower the hammer.

This is all true, but there are basically two ways of looking at the upshot. One would be to say that we have too many people starting college. Another would be to say that we need to do a better job of preparing more people for college. The growth in the wage premium associated with a college degree suggests the latter option to me. The fact that many European countries now have a higher proportion of people graduating from college also suggests the same to me. There's also the fact that currently at the college level we devote the most resources to the best prepared students while the worst-prepared students get the least resources (that's clear from Professor X's article) even though the objective level of need runs in the other direction.

See also Kevin Carey's remarks.