The Bennett Hypothesis Returns

The former education secretary speaks on a new book about whether a college degree is worth it.

June 20, 2013

WASHINGTON -- Anyone who has paid even glancing attention to the national debate over higher education in the past couple of years has already seen many books and white papers asking if too many people are going to college, or if a degree is worth the money (and, frequently, the attendant debt).

Now William J. Bennett, the former secretary of education under President Reagan, has weighed in. Bennett was a sharp critic of colleges and universities during his tenure; one of his legacies is the eponymous “Bennett hypothesis,” which argued that federal spending on student financial aid drives increases in college tuition.

Since the Reagan administration, Bennett has been better-known as a social commentator. But now he’s opining on higher education again, with a book released in May bluntly titled Is College Worth It?

The conclusion of Bennett (and his co-author, David Wilezol, an associate producer on Bennett’s television program, "Bill Bennett’s Morning in America") is a qualified yes -- more or less the same answer the Brookings Institution reached in a paper  this year that asked the same question. A four-year college degree is worth it, Bennett said during a panel discussion about his book at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday, for students who study “the right subject at the right place for the right price.”

The debate over the value of college (often accompanied by warnings of a higher education bubble) has gained new life in recent years -- driven both by national concern about rising levels of student debt and by the push, embraced by the Obama administration and various foundations, to get more Americans to obtain some kind of college credential.

Most colleges are serving students badly, Bennett argued his remarks. His comments included a litany of the “is college worth it?” debate’s greatest hits: he said there are 115,000 janitors in the United States with a bachelor’s degree, and that those with no degree can still get high-earning jobs (Bennett pointed to Edward Snowden, the National Security Administration leaker who earned a six-figure salary despite lacking a college degree, high school diploma or GED); argued that colleges are increasing tuition and using the proceeds to build climbing walls and offer “gourmet room service”; and cited Academically Adrift, the 2011 book that caused a firestorm in the education policy world when it argued that many students showed little to no gain in critical thinking skills during college.

Bennett also tackled another criticism of colleges and universities -- that they are doing little to serve low-income students. The “high tuition, high aid” model, under which universities charge high tuition but provide generous aid based on financial need, has failed, Bennett said, citing research finding that many qualified low-income students don’t apply to those expensive, selective institutions. His book expands on, and updates, his theory that federal student aid drives increases in college prices.

Wilezol, his co-author, argued that colleges are serving students so badly that they have unleashed a generation of disillusioned, indebted graduates.

“We’re creating a class of people that are not going to cohere as citizens, perhaps, and are missing out on what America is really about,” he said.

The panel discussion centered primarily around the economic value of a college degree, and the need for colleges to be more transparent with students about their possible outcomes. Most colleges lie to students in glossy catalogs, Bennett said: “What we want is a better-informed consumer.”

An unusually bipartisan swath of Washington -- including Republican Senator Marco Rubio and House majority leader Eric Cantor as well as representatives of the Obama administration -- has united in recent months behind a call for more data about college graduates’ salaries. Efforts are under way in some states to make that information available, at least for graduates who stay in-state after graduation.

Still, Bennett might seem an unlikely standard-bearer for the movement: he’s an advocate for the Great Books and a strong core curriculum based on Western traditions. He majored in philosophy and graduated in 1971 with his master’s in philosophy and $26,000 in student debt -- almost $150,000 in current dollars.

But he said students should go in with their eyes open -- and that the humanities have been “so debased, narrowed, professionalized and hermeneuticized” at most colleges that they have hardly any value.

As for himself, Bennett said: “Regrets? None,” he said. “I loved philosophy.... We don’t discourage people from doing that.”


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