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Whenever someone says they think fewer people should go to college, my first question is “Which people?”

In theory, I am open to the idea that too many people are going to college, and by “college” I mean four-year degree programs.

On the flip side, I think just about everyone would benefit from some form of postsecondary education or training that befits their interests and skills, and is, ideally, heavily subsidized (even to the point of being free) via the public coffers.

Again, in theory, my openness to fewer people going to college puts me in league with the libertarian right, which has made shrinking the cohort of college-bound young people something of a cause.

Bryan Kaplan’s 2019 book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, argues that for the most part students don’t learn much of anything useful in college, and the primary reason to go to college is to “prove you’re a good employee,” something you could do more efficiently by simply being an employee.

Writing at Reason, recent college graduate Emma Camp argues that because only around one-quarter of takers of the ACT meet the exam’s “college readiness benchmarks,” but 60 percent of recent high school graduates enroll in college, there is a disconnect between those who are capable of hacking college and those who attend. She suggests that some significant portion of this group does not necessarily want to attend college, but does so “begrudgingly” because they’ve been told it’s their only route to increased prosperity.

Of course, the increased cost of college makes this bargain considerably shakier, and while both Kaplan and Camp use cost as reason why fewer people should go to college, neither seems inclined to do much about it beyond, you know, not going if you can’t afford it with the money already at your disposal.

I’ll come back to that thought in a moment, but let’s start with the part with which I partially agree: that a college degree should not be a prerequisite for employment if the chances of success and happiness in that employment are not enhanced by the experience of earning that college degree. In this case, the degree simply becomes a kind of tax on starting one’s future.

Where my libertarian friends and I part ways is in who should not be going to college.

If we’d like to stop sending people to college who do not need the degree in as part of advancing their career aspirations, the children of the ultrawealthy come to mind. For sure, they don’t need the degree in order to achieve material security, their forebears having achieved that on their behalf.

Even if they desire careers, these folks often seem to gravitate toward gigs that did not require the college credential, per se. Were Ivanka Trump’s jobs as executive vice president for the Trump Organization or White House adviser predicated on her Wharton degree? Did her husband, Jared Kushner, need that degree from Harvard to purchase The New York Observer and start his career as newspaper owner/publisher?

Perhaps I missed Camp and Kaplan’s concern about legacy admissions, or legalized bribery, as in Jared Kushner’s case, where his father provided a glide path into Harvard with a $2.5 million donation to the school in advance of his son’s matriculation.

Lots of folks who say fewer people should go to college are really suggesting that college become a mix of birthright for the wealthy (or at least wealthy enough) and place of opportunity for the small percentage of nonwealthy who manage to gain admittance to the elite institutions that primarily cater to the wealthy.

Still, if those folks support initiatives like ending legacy preferences for admissions, as Amherst College did recently, resulting in the share of legacies in their freshman class being roughly halved, I think we can find some solid common cause on at least something.

If college is merely a route to improving the value of one’s human capital and we maintain the current structure of cost and funding, it seems pretty inevitable that the share of college-age students who will start a four-year (or two-year) degree will decline after years of increasing.

The libertarians would perhaps argue that them’s the breaks for the people who made the terrible choice of being born poor and didn’t manage to get a scholarship to the schools they believe are worth going to.

Where I really diverge from those folks, though, is in my belief that college is not an investment in our human capital, but instead an investment in our humanity.

I believe this because I experienced this, both as a student back when college was relatively affordable, and as an instructor, where I saw the many ways students benefit from the college experience.

It is this aspect of education as experience that I think is so often overlooked by those who want to try to quantify the value of something like a college degree and declare that the degree just isn’t worth it for some, or, in the case of people like Camp and Kaplan, that the public should not invest time and money in people who are not worthy of the opportunity.

This presumes the degree itself is truly the only thing of value. The route to earning that degree is not particularly important. This is the explicit argument Kaplan’s book makes as he declares that college students just don’t learn very much in college.

I personally learned a lot during college, though only some of that was in class. Was this a bug in the system, or should we look at it as a feature? I know back in my day it was the latter, but over time, this reality seems to have gotten lost in discussions about the “worth” of a college degree, as the primary concerns are around increasing speed and efficiency to a degree—for some students, at least.

Some are now touting the potential of generative AI to provide access to educational opportunities on a mass scale, obviating the four-year degree, as our “infinitely knowledgeable” and “infinitely patient” robot tutor will guide us through the curriculum at a pace customized to the student.

Sounds great. Will this experience of education be deployed at Harvard or Amherst College?

Unless and until that’s the case, consider me less than impressed with the potential of this technology to transform learning or provide economic opportunity to those not already materially secure. In fact, it seems like a route toward reinforcing, or even increasing, the current barriers to economic advancement.

I’ve seen how ChatGPT can write a pro forma recommendation letter that checks a box, but Professor AI probably isn’t all that helpful at a deeper human level.

So, yes, I’m open to fewer people going to college as soon as one’s socioeconomic class, geographic location and race are not barriers to accessing college, as they are presently, or when the sorts of schools the vast majority of students do attend are resourced at the level of their elite counterparts.

We can’t guarantee outcomes, and we probably can’t even level the playing field to take away the unearned advantages of the offspring of the wealthy, but we can consider what kinds of experiences can help shape the lives of everyone who desires more education and direct our shared resources to making those experiences as broadly available as possible.

Barack Obama, among many others, called education “the great equalizer.” This has never actually been true, but it’s a worthy goal. Maybe we should work on making it true.

Or do we not actually believe in that anymore?

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