America’s higher education consensus is breaking up: responding to Paul Tough

Bryan Alexander 2023-09-27

What happens to academia and society if we stop thinking higher education is for everyone?

A new entry into this emerging line of thought comes from Paul Tough, who recently published a powerful article in the New York Times.  “Americans Are Losing Faith in the Value of College.  Whose Fault is That?” covers a lot of ground, and I’d like to engage with it here.  He also spoke to the topic on a New York Times podcast.

Tough gets a lot of things right in this article, chiming in with my own work.  He identifies the swerve away from “college for everyone,” a move that I’ve previously called the shattered consensus.  He points to polls showing American support for higher education going down (here’s another example).  He notes the decade-long enrollment decline.  He catches how grad school can backfire economically (for students in some fields and/or schools).

Tough addresses the awful amount of student debt.  He hits on rising tuition and fees, nicely including some variations on that often oversimplified topic.  He correctly identifies the combination of taking college classes, getting into debt, and not graduating as one of the worst academic experiences a person can undertake.  He also pays attention to the importance of major for lifetime earnings, the widening partisan divide over academia, and how college can play a role as a finishing school for the elite.

I was especially impressed by his evocation of the wealth premium, in contrast to the wage premium,  as a good way of capturing college costs beyond opportunity costs:

Unlike the college wage premium, the college wealth premium looks at all your assets and all your debts: what you’ve got in the bank, whether you own a house, your student-loan balance. It addresses a simple but important question: How much net wealth does a typical college graduate accumulate over their life span, compared with that of a typical high school graduate?

You could think of the wealth premium as taking student debt and its impact more seriously than the wage premium does.  Read into Tough’s article as he teases out the serious problems.  Black and Hispanic students are most at risk of not earning a college bonus, once debt figures in.   And grad school is suffering from decreasing returns, badly:

When the researchers looked at young Americans who had gone on to get a postgraduate degree, the situation was even more dire. “Among families whose head is of any race or ethnicity born in the 1980s and holding a postgraduate degree, the wealth premium is … indistinguishable from zero,” the authors concluded. “Our results suggest that college and postgraduate education may be failing some recent graduates as a financial investment.”

At the same time I have some issues with the article, and would like to raise them here in the collegial spirit of continuing the conversation. Some of these points are in the positive attitude of “I like this very much and want more.” Some are quibbles, but I think the conclusion is where we can open up debate.

First, demographics don’t appear in Tough’s account, and that’s an essential dimension to the shattered consensus model – heck, for any discussion of higher education, period. Briefly, we know that the K-12 population is falling in big chunks of the United States (northeast, midwest, south) due to reliable effects of modernization, and that’s going to be hard for campuses to deal with. Nathan Grawe’s “demographic cliff”, scheduled to start hitting in 2-3 years, is an accentuation of this.

Second, there’s an awkward overfocus on public higher education, which I’ve seen elsewhere for years. Usually it takes the form of “the obvious solution to academic problems is for government to spend more money on state schools.”  Tough comes close to that line with this passage: “A few decades ago, the same thing was true in the United States; government funding covered much of the cost of public college.” I feel pedantic in saying this, but it’s odd phrasing, as it doesn’t make clear which government is involved. The reality is that public higher ed depends on state governments, rather than the federal.  More seriously, a focus on state universities leaves off private colleges and universities, which count for about 1/3rd of the American total. Moreover, and typically for nearly all academic conversations, it misses the for-profit sector.  That boomed circa 1990-2010, and it’s Obama-era collapse, followed by oscillating growth and failure since, is an important story, especially as that sector targets and enrolls high numbers of people of color, especially women. (Tressie McMillan Cottom’s Lower-Ed is brilliant on this).  It’s important to keep in mind the full reality of American higher ed’s nature: for-profits, privates, publics.

Third – well, here is where I’m less certain but think the point is by far the most important.  The article concludes by arguing that despite everything, America needs more people to get more college degrees.  Too many jobs which don’t require sheepskins don’t pay much, and there are too many jobs needing BA/BSes which seeking too few applicants.  Yet the “college for everyone!” consensus has broken.  What to do?

Craiyon more college students

Craiyon images “more college students”

Tough seems to leave the question open, at least in the Times article.  In the Daily interview, he recommends a bipartisan cultural and political movement to expand access to higher ed, along the lines of the early 20th century high school movement.  He wants us to double down, in other words, on college for everyone.  The undergrad degree (BA/BS; not sure if Tough thinks an associates or certificate counts here) should be like the high school diploma: free to all, with some support in getting it.

I think such a development is unlikely now.  To begin with, there’s little political appetite fr the political and economic investment needed.  State governments have many other priorities which have stronger clout, from public safety (watch for more crime panics) to supporting growing numbers of seniors (pensions, Medicare, senior services, public health, etc). It looks worse at the federal level. Biden failed to get tuition support for community college through Congress, and his student debt forgiveness package is stuck in courts, fierce political opposition, and usually poor polling.

Further, I’m not sure how we take care of the financial problems Tough outlines.  If we somehow hail Mary the politics and pour dollars into public higher ed, that leaves for-profits and privates out. But it also leaves the preexisting structures which helped drive this crisis intact: rising campus operation costs, decreasing student numbers in particular.

Additionally, the shattered consensus is looking pretty clearly shattered.  There are all kinds of signs.  Tough and I have mentioned the partisan political divide, but let’s add more:

  • We have states trying to break “the paper ceiling” by removing degree requirements for government jobs.  And note that these are both Republican- and Democrat-led administrations doing this.
  • There have been repeated stories of tech firms dispensing with diplomas and hiring, and while these haven’t really taken off, I note that popular dislike of increasing credential requirements is growing.  I expect to see K-12 schools sidestep degree demands in particular as that sector’s teacher crisis grows.
  • America’s population keeps growing, thanks to immigration… which means as the total of Americans enrolled declines, the proportion of us taking classes is declining a bit more steeply still.
  • While Tough rightly criticizes a range of service jobs for paying little, the fact remains that our economy and society generate those positions at scale.  For example, again with demographics: as Americans age, there’s more demand for a range of elder care services. People will fill these jobs, modulo the so-called “Great Resignation,” and the very problems Tough identifies with higher ed in 2023 will continue to drive people to that labor market instead of college campuses.
  • Democrats are not entirely delighted with higher ed.   That’s worth investigating.
  • The physical and human infrastructure of American colleges and universities is now overbuilt, overall.  We have constructed campus footprints and staffing for the boom years, and now we are in an overhang situation. This is one reason for administrations cutting programs and tenured faculty (of course they cut adjuncts, but somehow that gets zero press). Those investments are still on the books, meaning costs of operation will continue to rise, unless campuses brutally cut staff and physical plant.

Let me add two more points.  It’s not clear how the current AI wave will impact the job market, and what that will mean for colleges and universities.  It’s possible that AIs will devour some white color jobs, which will probably change how academia prepares students for those vanishing careers.  Alternatively, we might see those jobs persist, but with deep AI engagement, in which case higher ed should help students learn how to do that work.  The former might mean fewer graduates needed, the latter not so much.

Yet at the same time there’s a crying need for people to work on and around AI, from electrical engineers and computer scientists to managers, labor organizers, and sociologists studying the phenomenon. That should mean an increased call for bachelor’s, master’s, etc. degrees… unless firms, nonprofits, and governments hire people without the requisite credentials, because they choose them through other means (portfolio of work) and in hype-fuelled desperation.  Like I said, AI’s impact here is difficult to forecast without a flowchart.

The other point concerns international students, who seem to be absent from Tough’s otherwise wide-ranging account.  American colleges and universities have eagerly enrolled students from elsewhere in numbers which grew until Trump and COVID.  (In fact, if you consider America’s “college for everyone” to be a national goal, then we’re doing even worse than it seems, as the total number of students is inflated by international students.) This is a classic American strength, as our academic sector draws learners from around the world.

Some of those students get degrees and then stay in the United States to live and work. They can then fill the credential-demanding jobs Tough is concerned about.  I’m not sure of the numbers here, as international student data tends to lag, and foreign graduates are overrepresented in some fields (STEM, allied health), but I think it’s important to recognize that aspect of the situation.  Speaking of wild cards, I also think it’s not clear what’s going to happen with this population over the next five years, given the vast spectacle of a national election featuring criticism of immigrants, not to mention the chance of a second Trump presidency.

In short, I view American higher ed as overbuilt, while Tough sees the sector in need of more expansion. As far as I understand his argument, he sees the current academic crisis as one public sector investment needs to overcome, while I deem the overbuilt issue to be a driver of that crisis.  Tough calls for a new enrollment boom and I just don’t see that happening.

It’s an impressive article, well researched.  I recommend it and am glad to continue to conversation.