As long as there have been colleges, there’s been an individualist, anti-college strain in American culture””an affinity for the bootstrap. But it is hard to think of a time when skepticism of the value of higher education has been more prominent than it is right now. Over the past several months, the same sharp and distressing arguments have been popping up in the Times, cable news, the blogosphere, even The Chronicle of Higher Education. The cost of college, as these arguments typically go, has grown far too high, the return far too uncertain, the education far too lax. The specter, it seems, has materialized….
[Indeed]…the skepticism is spreading, even among foot soldiers on the academic front lines. In March, “Professor X,” an anonymous English instructor at two middling northeastern colleges, published In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, an expansion of an Atlantic essay arguing that college has been dangerously oversold and that it borders on immoral to ask America’s youth to incur heavy debt for an education for which millions are simply ill-equipped. Professor X’s book came out on the heels of a Harvard Graduate School of Education report that made much the same point. The old policy cri de coeur “college for all,” the report argues, has proved inadequate; rather than shunting everyone into four-year colleges, we should place greater emphasis on vocational programs, internships, and workplace learning. Then, last month, a front-page article in the Times delivered striking news: Student-loan debt in the U.S. is approaching the trillion-dollar mark, outpacing credit-card debt for the first time in history. With all that debt, more and more are asking, what are we buying?