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According to a Wall Street Journal–NORC poll recently covered here at Inside Higher Ed, a majority of Americans (56 percent) believe that a four-year education is “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific skills and a large amount of debt to pay off.”

Identical questions asked in nationally representative polls in 2013 and 2017 show that the share of people saying that a four-year degree is not worth it has climbed from 40 percent to 47 percent to now 56 percent.

The youngest cohort in the survey (18- to 34-year-olds) is the most skeptical about the worth of a four-year degree, with over 60 percent saying it’s not worth it.

Should anyone be surprised by these data? I hope not. While the results should be distressing “a wake-up call” in the words of Ted Mitchell of the American Council on Education, no one should be shocked.

As to what should be done about this, Mitchell says, “We need to do a better job at storytelling, but we need to improve our practice, that seems to be the only recipe I know of regaining public confidence.”

I disagree with Mitchell. I think people, particularly the young people most recently engaged with the decision about pursuing a four-year degree, understand the story well. They have been told from kindergarten on that their job in school is to become “college and career ready” with an emphasis on college. Subjects like music and art and activities like recess have been drained from the curriculum, replaced by test prep meant to ready them for application and then matriculation to college.

If they enroll, they are looking at the ever-increasing cost of tuition, high expenses and mounting debt. They believe they must choose a major not that they’re interested in, but that may “pay off.”

We have created a system where students are incentivized by a series of indefinite future rewards, rather than a series of experiences that they perceive as worthwhile while they are happening. It is suffering and sacrifice in the name of a reward.

Having gotten on the other side of the college years and seen that … whoops! … there are not a lot of rewards here, they are understandably disillusioned.

I would like to know what better story could substitute—a story that’s true, that is.

I also don’t know what kind of improved “practices” Mitchell might have in mind.

Look, I’m a big believer in improving the experience of student learning in college—it’s the primary focus of my work—but the idea that we can “improve our practice” out of this mess is borderline delusional at this point.

While the structural supports for teaching and learning have generally eroded over time (e.g., adjunctification), the actual practices of teaching have markedly improved since I went to college in the late 1980s and early ’90s at the University of Illinois. There are far more opportunities now for students to have meaningful and impactful learning experiences than at the time I went to college.

The chief difference between now and then is that my tuition for four years was $8,800 as an in-state student. Now it’s over $60,000.

It strikes me that given the factors that are implicated in the question, there are two broad paths to follow.

Option one is to make sure that those “specific skills” students can acquire in college prove to be “worth it” no matter the cost and debt.

Option two is to reduce the cost so as to relieve the pressure on schools to deliver on that promise of specific skills.

Given that by and large the American higher education system has been pursuing option one for the last 30 or so years and the belief in the value of a four-year degree has been declining, I’m going to extend a logical inference and suggest this has already proven to be a dead end.

In her 2017 book, Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy, Tressie McMillan Cottom introduces her frame of postsecondary education as “negative social insurance”—something you have to do that nevertheless makes you worse off. I asked her about this in an interview at Public Books in 2020.

She replied,

I was wrestling with an idea that, in its most basic terms, had always been true in the cultural imagination of Western society: that education makes your life better. Because the book, for me, was about reckoning, perhaps for the first time, with the reality that some education could make your life worse.

If education could uniformly and unilaterally improve your life, health, well-being, earnings, mobility, then we as a society had been justified in turning it into a social insurance program. We had been justified in the state taking on some responsibility for subsidizing the cost of people pursuing this “universally good thing.” If education was all these things, then it was a public good. A good that’s good for the public.

But when that belief had been perverted—in our case by private equity investment, financialization and what we might call negative politicking—then it was no longer true that education was universally good. Which means that the social insurance ethos had been subverted. And that we were now subsiding something that had a negative effect on a sizable portion of the population.

So that’s what negative social insurance is. We’re subsiding something that could ruin your life, just because it improves the lives of others sometimes.

Cottom was writing specifically about for-profit education, where the value of the credential is lower and the cost often higher than not-for-profit education, but the mechanism that has led to this cycle is no different for four-year universities.

What we are experiencing is the consequences of a system that turned a public good into a private good. The worth of a private good is always going to be subjective to the individual. Unless and until we treat postsecondary education as a public good, we shouldn’t expect anything other than continual decline if the belief of its value.

The end game we’re heading toward is college only for those who can already afford it.

I believe that would be a tragedy, a betrayal of American ideals, though folks might be surprised by how many of the already educated would be just fine with it, having internalized a belief that if you deserve a good education, you can figure out how to afford it by either being born rich or clawing your way into one of the elite institutions that makes education affordable for the small handful of low-income students they admit.

I say, let’s just have it out. Let’s talk about what we have to talk about and stop with this “better narrative/improving practices” stuff.

If the American experiment in public postsecondary education as an engine of democracy and prosperity is over, so be it, but let’s stop pretending there’s any other conversation that truly matters.

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