Maybe going to college is not such a great idea. Two years ago the entrepreneur Peter Thiel put up money that paid outstanding high school students to pursue paths and projects away from a college campus. Now, a flurry of articles report about bright, enthusiastic high school students who consciously reject going to college. The latest example is Alex Williams’s “The Old College Try? No Way!” in The New York Times that includes a caption proclaiming that for high achievers, “College is for suckers!” This “case against college” may be heretical to our higher education orthodoxy. But it is not new.
From 1870 to 1890, enrollments at most colleges declined even though the national population grew. College presidents were perplexed about the loss of appeal “going to college” held for young Americans. The School of Hard Knocks trumped the College of Liberal Arts if you were an inventor or an investor. Ambitious young Americans wanted to get on with their pursuits and profits. They saw four years of college as lost time and wasted opportunity.
Even the learned professions of medicine and law seldom required a college education – or even a high school diploma. And, for most 18-year-olds whose parents were farmers or shopkeepers, you had to stay home to help with the family business. Tuition was not an obstacle because it was incredibly cheap – seldom more than $100 per year. When college presidents made desperate offers to attract students by lowering tuition and waiving entrance examinations, there were few takers and lots of empty classroom seats. College officials failed to understand that for most American families the loss of a child’s earnings was a more important consideration than even no tuition charge in making a decisive case against college.
But that was then and this is now. The current advocates for the case against college may be correct in pointing out that a Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs did not need a college degree to be successful. What this ignores is that the overall strength of American higher education in the 20th century has been less spectacular yet important — namely, to educate for civil society and expertise.
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