mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Unemployment and Student Debt Sour America On College

The Great Recession has done something that seemed unimaginable just a few years ago: it has dented America’s faith in the returns on higher education. Over the past four years, the number of adults who see college as a “good investment” dropped by a quarter. The Huffington Post reports:

In 2008, 81 percent of adults thought college was a good investment. That number dropped to 57 percent, according to a national survey of 3,000 Americans commissioned by Country Financial and compiled by Rasmussen Reports.

Americans are also increasingly embittered over student debt. Last year, 31 percent thought more than $20,000 in student loan debt was too much. In 2012, that number jumped to 42 percent.

Despite this striking shift in the national mood, the fact is that most jobs now require a degree past high school, and the trend lines point to yet more credentialism as the years roll on. What’s more, credentialism aside, Americans are actually going to need to know more stuff and be able to think more creatively. We need more knowledge, not less, and as the economy changes people are going to have to keep upgrading their skills and acquiring new ones all through their careers.

The current educational model can’t deliver; change is on the way.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Corlyss

    “Americans are actually going to need to know more stuff and be able to think more creatively.”

    This has been true for decades. Coincident with this and its importance, the education system k-12 and beyond have proliferated feel-good crap as legitimate studies, worthwhile productive use of students’ time, and empty, useless ethnic studies (all aimed at how to screw more preferential treatment out of the governments at hand).

    Anyone see any signs of this abating to meet the challenge? Anyone?

  • Anthony

    I would hazard a guess and say that Millennial Generation disproportionately affected – the change you herald WRM I trust will benefit them.

  • Eurydice

    In general, I think everybody needs to know more stuff. And they also have to update their knowledge as the stuff they’ve already learned turns out to be obsolete or just plain not true. (Don’t get me started on Pluto.) But I don’t think people need to go through a degree program every time they want to learn something.

    As for whether going to college is a good investment – if a college degree is necessary to get pretty much any job, then that’s more like buying a license to practice a trade, and that would seem to require a model different from the university system we have today.

  • cacrucil

    I sure hope so professor. Higher ed is way too expensive.

  • jt

    “Americans are actually going to need to know more stuff”
    Why 13 years (K-12) is not enough to get such knowledge?
    Why is going to a boarding school for another 2, 4 or 6 years is a good investment?

  • Samtastic

    If the CEOs of businesses lied about their accounting like Universities lied about their job placement and starting salaries, they would be in jail. Education has a cost/benefit. For too long the numbers have been hidden Let students file bankruptcy (after 5-10 years) and let the banks go after the universities to collect a portion of the money. When I was thinking about going to law school, all those schools had brochures with their range of salaries and job placement percentage. Turns out they were all false. How is this not different from lying on a loan application. These students are led to believe you will make X amount of money, justifying Y cost.

  • Eurydice

    @jt #5 – Yes, K-12 (and 4 years of college, too) is not enough education for human beings who likely will live into their 80’s – that just sets them up to be dinosaurs.

  • Mike_K

    The residential university model is dead. They just haven’t figured it out yet. My youngest is about to graduate and the crap she has been fed is appalling. The increase in cost in the 25 years since my oldest finished is obscene. Let’s not even talk about the changes since I was an undergraduate 50 years ago. I have several graduate degrees and their value diminished as the years went by. The only one of value is my MD. The kids getting MDs now are not going to get the same value.

  • RS

    I am sure that a degree in women’s studies is every bit as valuable today as it was 10 years ago.


  • William H Stoddard


    If you have not learned how to learn things on your own by the time you finish college, there is probably no hope for you. When I was at UCSD I got as much of my education from raiding the library for books on topics that interested me as I did from my classes; now I do the same with both print and online sources. The lack of desire to learn is the biggest problem.

  • CBDenver

    I went to college, but the job skills that got me a good-paying job with a future were learned at a trade school (computer programming), on-the-job training, and continuous self-leaning (thanks, Internet!). I think my parents wasted their money.

  • Mrs. Davis

    High tuition and lousy curriculum and instruction soured me on higher education long before the great recession. It’s almost as though the faculties want to dumb down the country.

  • John

    I’m gonna say this as one who graduated 4th in his class and attended a prestigious college on scholarship: academia is a lie.

    All your life, you are told that if you get A’s in everything and can master material like differential equations and history and the Kreb’s cycle, you have a path to a prosperous future.

    All that [stuff] doesn’t add up to a hill of beans in the real world, for most people. The richest people I know run small plumbing companies and insurance agencies or have skill sets they could have mastered with 6 months of hard study and some on the job training.

    Did you know that Andrew Carnegie (founder of my alma mater) became the richest man in the world, even though he never graduated past sixth grade?

    Wanna know how that’s possible? Because everything beyond basic math and communication skills is discretionary. You study it if it pertains to your endeavor, you can safely ignore it if not.

  • Walter Sobchak

    Americans are actually going to need to know more stuff and be able to think more creatively. We need more knowledge, not less,

    College is about sex, drugs, and alcohol. It is about getting your ticket stamped. It has nothing to do with knowledge or learning.

    And within the last decade I spent a half million dollars on the college education of my children.

    But, I am not bitter.

  • Number Six

    Public schools were much better fifty years ago. Just for the challenge, go look at final exams given to students before they were allowed to graduate High School in 1910 or 1960. Those exams include algebra, geometry, history, grammar, reading comprehension and writing skills that are superior to the knowledge and skills of most college graduates in 2010.

    The important difference is this. In the past the public schools did not tolerate crime and stupidity. If you could not keep up, if you would not conform, they would gladly let you fail and drop out. If you were violent they would force you out of school. They did not lower their standards just to have more graduates. They preferred quality and not quantity.

    Today we have social promotions so the dumbest, low class people can get degrees. And the professional educators do not understand why the degrees have no value.

    In the 21st Century, Americans will need to know more ‘stuff’ and be able to think creatively. If we rely on our current model of colleges, America is doomed to Idiocracy.

    Is there a single High School in the United States that teaches logic or critical thinking? There may be some private schools that can do it but I doubt you’ll find it in a public school.

  • David

    I worked in IT for a Fortune 50 company and we dropped all requirements for college degrees. It made zero difference in the hiring/screening process. We needed people with up-to-date programming and server-admin skills, and there was no correlation between having a degree and having those skills.

    Knowledge and skills are necessary, but college degrees don’t even suggest that a person can show up on time and control their anger.

  • teapartydoc

    Paying what amounts to the cost of buying a house in order to get a ticket punched is a total waste of money, time and effort, Walter, and you should be bitter about it. I am not bitter toward my children, but I learned to resent the system when I was in junior high school. The whole system is a crock of junk. Any credentialing that needs to be done should be limited to exams administered by private associations that have taken it upon themselves to perform for a fee, unrecognized by the government, and any competing association should be free to offer a test of it’s own without worry that other organizations can shut it down because of some stupid government standard. The learning should be done any way the individual sees fit in order to prepare for the exam. If some kind of college is thought by the student to be necessary, OK. Otherwise, as long as they can pay the fee, they can take the test.

  • Cathy

    Higher education bubble? My friend is in a fit. Her daughter graduated Andover and University of Penn., Wharton School AND has fluency in Chinese. She declined an employment offer with Goldman Sachs.

    Daughter is now running out to San Fransico to pursue a dream to reorganize on line collegiate education. I think she may be on to something.

    Funny things, when my 12 year old confessed his hacking ability, incredulous, I asked him where he learned these skills.

    His answer was simply you tube/internet. He taught himself four programming languages.

    Another friend’s son taught himself to play the guitar off the internet.

    Another son has been repeatedly invited to join Stanford University’s (and other ivies) High school online program despite being enrolled in a prestigious all scholarship high school.

  • Eurydice

    @William H. Stoddard #10 – I agree that one should know *how* to learn by the time one gets out of college (and I had a similar experience to yours). But knowing *what* one should learn in the subsequent years is a different story – and figuring out *where* to find academic-quality information and how to acquire it in an efficient and economical manner is yet another story.

    Our entire educational system is predicated on the idea that one learns everything one needs to know in life by being force-fed information in the first couple of decades. And that’s probably fine if people die young, retire early, and nothing much changes in the world. But that hasn’t been true for quite a while – and, now that we have a population that’s living and staying healthy longer, the assumptions of what is education have to change.

  • ALP

    Eurydice says:
    July 22, 2012 at 7:50 am

    Yes, K-12 (and 4 years of college, too) is not enough education for human beings who likely will live into their 80′s – that just sets them up to be dinosaurs.
    Your comment implies that one can only learn in the context of higher ed. I would argue most learning happens on the job. Sixteen years in an institution is PLENTY to prepare people for learning on the job.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service