What do people do after graduating from high school?
Once upon a time there were many common answers to this question, but in recent decades one has increasingly and remarkably steadily become the norm for above average students and many below. It has hardly been that way throughout the nation’s history; according to the U.S. Department of Education, in the 1869-1870 school year only 1.3% of 18 to 24-year-old Americans were enrolled in college. That share edged up to 2.3% in 1899-1900, reached 4.7% by 1919-20, and even in the Depression-time 1933-34 was at 6.7%. By 1945-46, the beginning of the G.I. Bill, it reached 10.0%, achieving 17.7% only ten years later and 27.7% in fall 1963, on the eve of U.S. Vietnam War involvement. With the end of conscription twelve years later, 40.3% of Americans attended, not exceeding that rate until 1981 but reaching 53.7% by the fall of 1991. Sources conflict after those dates, but per the Bureau of Labor Statistics 70% of high school students went directly to college in 2005, though dropping to 65.9% by the fall of 2013. Most other first-world countries have not reached these levels; in a 44-country list from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, only Australia, Canada, Ireland, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Norway, Russia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom had a higher share of 2014 25 to 34-year-olds with at least two-year degrees than America’s 46%.
Since the Civil War, this massive and inexorable-seeming social trend has built with a remarkable lack of opposers. One classic exception was author Caroline Bird, whose 1975 The Case Against College argued that fewer people should attend. The book includes sections on how universities and even two-year schools benefit from a “mystique,” the cost of college to parents and students, its real, statistical, and erroneously purported advantages, a look at the true sources of success, and a 44-page chapter on alternative courses of action. The work got attention, but as above did not stop the enrollment rise.
Now, 43 years later, we have picked up another dissident, this time professor Bryan Caplan, author of last month’s The Case Against Education. In some ways, the roles and situation of college have transformed; in some ways they have not. Here are nine changes, from Caplan and elsewhere, since Bird’s book.
First, the cost of college has massively increased even in relation to inflation. The prices quoted by Bird, including $22,256 for all expenses for four years at Princeton, $2,400 per year including books and support for resident state-school students, and a medical school graduate expecting to owe “close to $15,000” now seem quaint. According to former U.S. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander, college tuition rose 260% from 1980 to 2014, compared with 120% for the Consumer Price Index. Anecdotally, and by adding a few years to each end, we can get much higher jumps. Tuition at Lawrence University, which I attended for the 1975-76 school year, has more than decupled from $4,400 to 2016-2017’s $44,544. That at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, for state residents, soared 14-fold from 1977’s $680 for two full-credit semesters to $9,534 per year. As a student I covered that with 320 hours of minimum-wage work, at $2.30 per hour less payroll tax deductions – today, at Wisconsin’s $7.25, it would take 1,424.
Second, vocationalism, which was starting to vie with pure learning for main college directions in 1975, largely won that battle in the early 1980s, with school-wide emphasis changes and accounting becoming the most popular undergraduate major.
Third, the percentage of graduates has also increased substantially. In 1975, 17.6% of American males, and 10.6% of females had four-year degrees; by 2016 those numbers were up to 33.2% and 33.7%, or a combined share 137% higher.
Fourth, the average statistical advantage for graduates has also gone up, with the expected “earnings premium,” cited by Caplan as rising from 50% more over a lifetime than those only finishing high school in the late 1970s to 73% last year.
Fifth, there are more college dropouts than ever, and they are not counted in the statistical gain above. They accrue sometimes considerable debt, impede themselves from earning more during their enrollment times, cost their parents money as well, and, per Caplan, may after failing “be too embittered to go back and learn a trade.”
Sixth, employers’ main response to degrees becoming more common has been to raise their educational requirements. In the 1950s, people wanting careers in business rarely went to college. Later, I saw that personally in AT&T management – when arriving in 1988, my bachelor’s degree was a solid credential, with many peers and even my first on-the-job boss without one, but in only nine years so many such managers had retired, been downsized, or were otherwise replaced by those two steps more educated, that I felt naked without a master’s degree. The tasks themselves did not change nearly that much, with intelligence and technical aptitude still most required.
Seventh, academic work and studying hours in college have dropped. Per Caplan, average 1967 students took 40 hours per week for class and study time – in 2017, that was 27.
Eighth, and strangely given the last difference, above-average universities have become significantly more selective. Even correcting for high school grade inflation, many successful 1970s and 1980s professionals could not now get into the colleges they attended with the credentials they had. To name only one example, the University of Wisconsin at Madison then accepted almost all applicants with gradepoint averages in the top half of their classes – now the average is 3.85, and over half of those seeking to attend are rejected.
Ninth, the general incompetence of graduates, in conjunction with their learning only narrow pieces of subjects, has worsened. For me, the most depressing parts of learning about Caplan’s work were his examples of what people who successfully completed college, the most recent of whom have overcome these high admission requirements, paid modern-day tuition, and avoided falling to the no-degree wayside, often or even generally cannot do. Per Caplan, 20% had only “basic” or even “below basic” literacy, and many could not “make sense of a table explaining how an employee’s annual health-insurance costs varied with income and family size, or summarize the work-experience requirements in a job ad, or even use a newspaper schedule to find when a television program ended.” He also discovered Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner’s finding that “students who receive honor grades in college-level physics courses are frequently unable to solve basic problems and questions encountered in a form slightly different from that on which they have been formally instructed and tested.” Caplan glumly noted that while “those who believe that college is about learning how to learn should expect students who study science to absorb the scientific method, then habitually use it to analyze the world,” it “scarcely occurs.” While 1970s universities with their arena-sized classrooms and predominant “multiple-guess” exams had, though to a lesser extent, these problems as well, few good academic departments would have let people graduate without having more flexible capability within their fields.
Next week, we look at what has stayed the same since Bird’s work, and what is now happening, overall, with American higher education.