As a college degree has become both a requirement for obtaining a living wage and a source of financial hardship for middle-class families, many Americans have begun to ask, “Is college for everyone?” In 2013, the Brookings Institute published an extensive report concluding that college doesn’t always offer a good return on investment, leaving many students with low-wage jobs and crushing debt. Some argue that we should divert tax dollars from public universities to vocational education for students who are unable to succeed in college, while others protest that this line of argument is most often invoked in debates about how to serve students from low-income backgrounds, including many students of color.
While proponents of both views disagree about what paths should be offered to students who are not succeeding in the current system, they both share a common assumption about the purpose of a college degree: that its primary goal is job preparation for the sake of personal enrichment.
But to truly answer the question, “Is college for everyone?” we first need to revisit the question, “What is college for?”
The idea that college is a means to gain a better job and a higher salary has not always been dogma in American culture as it is today. Rather, America’s first public universities defined their mission as preparing educated citizens to participate in the newly formed republic.
When the board of commissioners for the University of Virginia presented their plans to the Virginia General Assembly in 1818, they spent much of their time stressing the political and moral gains of a state-funded university. The board argued that college was necessary to train qualified public servants for government and to educate American youth about the country’s laws and politics. In addition to these practical gains for the country, the board stressed that a university education would develop students’ habits of self-reflection and moral character.
Of course, these lofty goals were deeply compromised by the moral contradictions of the American founders. Their ideal of an educated citizenry did not extend to women and people of color, who were not considered citizens at all. And while America’s earliest state universities proclaimed their commitment to freedom and democracy, they simultaneously relied on slave labor to build and maintain their institutions.
These were immense failings, and they cannot be justified. We still have much to learn, however, from this early American vision of college as education for civic life. If college is only a private good for personal enrichment, it makes no sense to insist that all students attend. But if college is a public good that cultivates educated citizens who can help build a strong democracy, it becomes much more urgent to invest significant resources in making college accessible to all. In this latter view of college, the “return on investment” is not measured in economic terms for individuals but rather in the effectiveness of government, the quality of political discourse, and the health of civic life for all Americans.
Though many no longer view civic education as a primary goal of college, recent research indicates a strong connection between college and civic engagement. College graduates are twice as likely to volunteer in their communities, three times as likely to hold a leadership position within a community organization, and significantly more likely to vote and engage in political activities such as contacting their elected representatives. In the most recent election, college activism and voter registration drives helped raise the amount of young voters who participated in this year’s midterms to 31% from 21% in 2014.
A college education can do much more than open the door to a comfortable life. It can also offer students crucial tools and opportunities for reshaping American society in more just and equitable ways. If access to college remains disproportionately restricted to those with the financial resources to attend and graduate, the voices that represent American communities will continue to lack diverse perspectives (although on Nov. 6, the country made important gains in this respect). This work is too important to leave in the hands of the privileged few whose family background and life circumstances have smoothed their path to a college degree.
Arguing that we need routes to the middle class that do not include college, the economist Robert Reich argues, “Not every young person is suited to four years of college. They may be bright and ambitious but they won’t get much out of it. They’d rather be doing something else, like making money or painting murals.”
Like many who argue that some students simply aren’t cut out for college, Reich makes two key assumptions: first, that a student’s intellectual path is fixed at the age of 18, and, second, that reforming our current system of higher education is so absolutely impossible that we must create another system to ensure economic equality.
Anticipating similar arguments from the General Assembly in 1818, the University of Virginia’s board offered this counter: “We should be far too from the discouraging persuasion, that man is fixed, by the law of his nature, at a given point: that his improvement is a chimæra, and the hope delusive of rendering ourselves wiser, happier or better than our forefathers were.”
Rather than throw up our hands and say “College isn’t for everyone,” we should engage in the hard work of restructuring our education system so that everyone who wants to graduate from college has a fair chance to do so. In order to accomplish this, we will need to channel the attitude of America’s earliest universities. Neither an 18-year-old’s academic path nor our current system of higher education should ever be regarded as fixed.
Yoon S. Choi, Ph.D., is the CEO of CollegeSpring.