That more people should go to college is usually taken as a given. People with college degrees make a lot more than people without them, and that difference has been growing. But does that mean that we should help more kids go to college--or that we should make it easier for people who didn't go to college to make a living?
We may be close to maxing out on the first strategy. Our high college drop-out rate--40% of kids who enroll in college don't get a degree within six years--may be a sign that we're trying to push too many people who aren't suited for college to enroll. It has been estimated that most people in their 20s who had college degrees were not in jobs that required them: another sign that we are pushing kids into college who will not get much out of it but debt.
The benefits of putting more people in college are also oversold. Part of the college wage premium is an illusion.
People who go to college are, on average, smarter than people who don't. In an economy that increasingly rewards intelligence, you'd expect college grads to pull ahead of the pack even if their diplomas signified nothing but their smarts.
College must make many students more productive workers. But at least some of the apparent value of a college degree, and maybe a lot of it, reflects the fact that employers can use it as a rough measure of job applicants' intelligence and willingness to work hard.
We could probably increase the number of high school seniors who are ready to go to college and likely to make it to graduation. But let's face it: college isn't for everyone, especially if it takes the form of four years of going to classes on a campus.
To talk about college this way may sound élitist. It may even sound philistine, since the purpose of a liberal-arts education is to produce well-rounded citizens rather than productive workers.
But perhaps it is more foolishly élitist to think that going to school until age 22 is necessary to being well-rounded, or to tell millions of kids that their future depends on performing a task that only a minority of them can actually accomplish.