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The cover of the book “Is College Worth It?” featuring an oversized orange question mark against a navy blue background.

Johns Hopkins University Press

Public confidence in colleges and universities has reached a historic low. In a 2023 Gallup poll, only 36 percent of Americans expressed confidence in higher education, down from 57 percent in 2015. Among Republicans, confidence has dropped 20 percentage points since 2018, to only 19 percent. A majority of Americans now believe that higher education is unaffordable, not worth the cost, even for those who can afford it, and headed in the wrong direction.

Both Democrats and Republicans cite high tuition as a major reason for criticizing higher education. Republicans also emphasize politicized instruction, lack of marketable skills training, and excessive efforts to shield students from views they might find offensive. And that was before Hamas launched its October 7 terrorist attack on Israel and the conflict over free speech and campus antisemitism that followed.

The picture, however, is more complicated than the headlines suggest. Notwithstanding public skepticism, a recent Chronicle of Higher Education poll found that “78 percent of respondents would recommend that a close friend or relative pursue a bachelor’s degree,” though many respondents “qualified” their recommendation to say friends should “choose a course of study that warrants the time and money involved.” That said, less than one third of respondents think colleges and universities do a good job of “leveling the playing field for success in society.” Given a choice of five alternatives to college, ranging from trade school to apprenticeships to military service, large majorities “said each one was about the same as or better than a bachelor’s degree in trying to achieve a successful livelihood.”

Until recently, most Americans believed college was a good investment. Study after study demonstrated that college graduates earn substantially more than workers without a college degree. According to one widely cited report, college graduates on average earn 84 percent more over their lifetimes than those with just a high school degree.

Between 1965 and 2011, undergraduate enrollment almost quadrupled “as the earning differential between high school and college graduates expanded.” But as the cost escalated and student debt levels reached record highs, doubts grew: between 2010 and 2021, undergraduate enrollment fell 15 percent from 18.1 million to 15.4 million students, although this year the number of college applicants is up 6 percent.

Meanwhile, new studies offered empirical support for doubters. Acknowledging that the earnings differential remains high, these studies examined the college wealth premium—the extent to which college degree holders accumulate greater total assets than high school graduates over their lifetimes The results were mixed. Older, white college graduates born before 1980 accumulated two to three times as much wealth as their non-college–educated white peers, but for more recent graduates, especially Black and Hispanic graduates, the wealth premium was much smaller and for some cohorts negligible.

In the aggregate, “more education still means more income,” but for many students, the “downside risk[s]” are large, and outcomes vary widely depending on family background, access to financial aid, race and other factors.

In Is College Worth It? Class and the Myth of the College Premium, forthcoming this month from Johns Hopkins University Press, Richard Ohmann, emeritus professor of English at Wesleyan University (now deceased), and Ira Shor, emeritus professor of English and urban education at City University of New York, argue that the college wage premium is largely a myth that serves business interests and reinforces class hierarchies. Doing little to promote social mobility, colleges instead have “assumed a key role in reproducing inequality.”

The authors acknowledge that the higher lifetime earnings of college graduates is among the best documented findings in the social sciences, but ask, “what is it, precisely, about college that pays off?” And for whom?

Ohmann and Shor argue strenuously that higher education is correlated with but does not “cause” higher earnings. They list a plethora of factors that might be associated with the population that chooses to go to college and may influence earnings in ways unrelated to whatever an undergraduate learns, including race, gender, physical attributes, intelligence, ambition and family wealth. Thus, for example, “family wealth could be a predictor of going to college, and college a predictor of high earnings, but since family wealth directly predicts high earnings, we can forget about college.”

Family of origin, then, is critical in what makes people well off; affluent families can pass wealth to the next generation and provide their children a boatload of advantages.

Focusing only on an undifferentiated college premium “commits the fallacy of division: that what is true of a group is true of each individual in it.” It ignores large disparities in earnings by major and institutional type. The graduates of highly selective institutions fare much better than other undergraduate degree holders. Most important, the qualities students bring with them to college matter more than what they learn there. In short, the authors “see the idea that ‘college’ leads to high earnings as only one factor in a complex bundle of causes, most of which are not features of a college education.”

Ohmann and Shor acknowledge that colleges may help students develop “generalized capabilities” that make them more productive workers, such as literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, communication and problem solving, but suggest college is, at best, a “wasteful and oblique way” to acquire such skills. They also acknowledge that a college degree may serve a signaling function, letting employers know a job candidate has certain intellectual and character attributes and the tenacity to complete a degree. But these possibilities say little about how much college itself contributes to higher earnings.

Most higher education economists, it’s worth noting, agree with Ohmann and Shor that not all graduates benefit from a college wage premium and that gender, race, and wealth (and the social and cultural capital that come with it) play a major role in determining outcomes.

What sets Is College Worth It? apart, then, is the authors’ claim that the college wage premium is attributable “chiefly to the necessities of capitalist accumulation, to the preferences and needs of employers, to systems of domination (e.g., class, race, gender, able-bodiedness), and to the dynamics of social reproduction—that is, the maintenance and adjustment of those processes [and] systems.” In short, the “premium privileges the already privileged, recapitulating historical inequities” and preserving “prevailing hierarchies.”

The authors believe that in a capitalist, market-driven economy, “higher education has been moving steadily in a corporate direction,” increasingly focused on return on investment, turning colleges “into training and marketing centers for business,” and “reproducing rather than dispelling inequality.”

This framing prevents Ohmann and Shor from offering much in the way of possible reforms that would render colleges and universities—or American society—more equitable.

And so, in a concluding chapter, Shor indicates that meaningful reform would require “organized opposition” to “the institutional forces and ideologies sustaining inequality—male domination, white privilege, corporate hegemony, heteronormativity, and imperialism—as the foundational pillars of the status quo.”

In the meantime, Shor offers a reform agenda, similar to the agenda advocated by other educational progressives, including free tuition at public institutions; student debt relief; “high levels of state subsidies for public colleges in order to … make mass higher education a rich experience,” with small classes and interactive and student-centered pedagogy; the folding of community colleges into four-year institutions; continuous, seven-day-a-week operation of classes to benefit working families; and greater support for members of vulnerable groups.

None of these policies, Shor recognizes, seem likely to be enacted any time soon.

So, is college worth it? Ironically, the authors seem to think so. As they acknowledge in passing, “education is intellectually, socially, and emotionally valuable, apart from any wage premium it may bring about.” With that important and, these days, all too often ignored assessment, we wholeheartedly agree.

David Wippman is the president of Hamilton College. Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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