It’s college-selection season—a difficult time made even harder because the average cost of a four-year institution has climbed to more than $21,000 annually. Along with the usual queries about majors, dorms and dining halls, it’s worth asking some more subversive questions: What’s college for? And is it still worth it?
At first glance, the answers seem obvious. College is about exposure to new kinds of knowledge, classic literature and a bevy of scientific facts. Plus, there’s a lasting payoff: According to the Census Bureau, full-time workers with bachelor’s degrees earn, on average, $20,000 more per year than those with just high-school diplomas. This helps to explain why college remains a largely unquestioned advantage, an investment with a massive payoff.
And yet, a growing chorus is saying all is not well in higher education. Although American universities continue to set application records, many critics say that student-debt levels are becoming unsustainable, having recently passed the $1 trillion mark. More than four million students, or nearly 15% of borrowers, are in default on their loans.
What’s worse, there’s disturbing evidence that many colleges are failing to effectively educate their students. According to a controversial recent study, led by the sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa and summarized in their book “Academically Adrift,” nearly half of all undergraduates fail to demonstrate significant improvements in critical thinking or writing skills during their first two years in college. Even more dismal, particular kinds of knowledge are largely forgotten shortly after the final exam.
Drs. Arum and Roksa say that college has become a leisure activity, with the typical undergraduate spending 40 hours a week socializing and 13 hours studying. In many large lecture halls, attendance rarely exceeds 55%. More