Where Does the Idea Everyone Should Go to College Come From?

The astute Howard Root had a very good column in the Business section of the Star Tribune the other day (July 10) with the forceful headline, “We’re Not Doing Students Favors by Overselling College Degrees.”  The recently retired CEO of Vascular Solutions, a medical device company he started and ran for 20 years, one of Root’s most effective points was when he noted that his firm “consistently had unfilled job openings for non-degreed technicians in machine design at salaries well above $50,000.”  But when it came to their “entry-level marketing associate program,” Vascular Solutions “received at least 50 applications from recent college graduates for every position we hired.”

Observations and arguments about how many young people who aren’t interested in demanding academic work – much less adequately prepared for it – would be better served, economically and in other ways, if they opted for educational routes other than four-year degrees are not brand new.  But they’re growing in number and persuasiveness, and my American Experiment colleagues and I would like to think that our multi-year project, “Great Jobs Without a Four-Year Degree,” is having something to do with this.

Yet even with heightened attention, a fundamental matter pursued less frequently than one might imagine is the origins and nature of the view that “just about everyone” should aim for a four-year degree?  This assertion is certainly in the cultural air, even though – the point is rich – I’ve known only one person who ever explicitly said it.  This was back in the late 1960s when a left-wing political scientist told me exactly that, albeit stopping short before adding anything like, “Uninterested students of the world, DON’T unite!”

So, if few people, in fact, believe that virtually everyone should seek a B.A., why is the idea, or something akin, as potent as it is?

As for origins, the significant degree to which soldiers returning from World War II made use of the GI Bill signaled the birth of mass higher education and its enrollment explosions.  This was followed by the even larger degree to which Baby Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 enrolled, and then in greater numbers still by subsequent generations.

College enrollments in the United States in 1939-40 totaled a rounded-off 1.5 million students.  The number rose to 2.4 million in 1949-50.  Followed by 3.6 million in 1959-60.  Followed by 8.0 million in 1969-70.  Followed by 11.6 million in 1979-80.  Followed by 13.5 million in 1989-90.

Jumping ahead almost a quarter century later, the number of students enrolled in American colleges and universities in 2014 was 20.2 million men and (mostly) women.  All these numbers include community college enrollments.

As for why enrollments have grown so dramatically, I would point to two dynamics, one mainly in the province of students and the other of parents.

Going back to 1997, Kenneth Gray, an education professor, reported that, “Ninety-five percent of high school sophomores surveyed in a recent [U.S.] Department of Education study said they would go directly to college after high school, and 85 percent aspired to at least a four-year degree.”

In 2011, sociologist James E. Rosenbaum wrote that a remarkable (or not so remarkable) 80 percent of “low-achieving seniors” who plan a four-year degree “have an 80 percent failure rate.”

And in 2014, a British sociologist, John Jerrim, reinforced Rosenbaum’s finding when he wrote that “American teenagers are less realistic about their prospects of obtaining a bachelor’s degree than young people in most other developed countries.”

How have parents chipped in?  Despite findings like those by Gray, Rosenbaum, and Jerrim, as well as the fact that only modestly more than a third of American young people currently earn a bachelor’s degree, 92 percent of parents in a 2010 Gallup Poll said their own children would, in fact, go to college.  Given artificially high expectations of this magnitude on the part of mom and/or dad, it’s hard not to imagine great proportions of young people harboring unrealistically high expectations, too.