This question comes up often, sometimes slightly rephrased as "Is College for Everyone?" or "Should Everyone Go to College?," and it's a silly formulation because the answer is, obviously, no. If you put it this way, people immediately think of their idiot third cousin or that guy from high school who liked to drink grain alcohol and tie M-80s to the backs of squirrels, and they rightly say "Of course not, and anyone who thinks otherwise is being utopian and dumb."Carey is referring to this paper by MIT economist Paul Osterman.
The real question (and the one Osterman actually addresses) is how many people should go to college, and is that number, compared to current college-going and degree completion rates, too small, too large, or about right? Osterman frames the discussion around the college wage premium (the average difference between wages for people who have college degrees and those who don't). This number has been bubbling up with increasing frequency in policy debates, because it hasn't changed much over the last seven years. That's a break with historical trends; from the early 1970s to 2000, the premium grew steadily and substantially, particularly for people with advanced (post-baccalaureate) degrees.
But the question of how many should be going to college needs to be coupled with a couple of other questions.
1. Who should go to college? The proper answer in politically correct circles is "anyone who wants to." But that is not really a good answer since a fair number of students, including those going to high-level public universities, have no business being in college AT THAT TIME. I capitalize that last part to make clear that yes, I think anyone who has the skills, preparation and attitude should be able to go to college. But I would also note that there is a large portion of entering freshmen every year who could use some time to mature, gain necessary skills and otherwise make themselves ready for college. College is expensive and it is far better to spend a little time before you get to college making sure you are ready to do the work necessary to succeed rather than a) waste your own money (or your parents), b) waste scholarship money, or c) incur student loan debt unnecessarily.
2. How do we determine who and how many should go to college? Clearly self-selection is not necessarily working out since some 40 percent of students don't get a degree within six years of entering college. So the question is interesting as to when and how to identify someone as ready for college. No, the SAT is not an accurate predictor, nor is high school peformance. So what is the proper determinant? I really don't know, but it seems like a relevant question to ask since so much money, time, heartache and headache accompanies such a decision. Too often, teh decision of whether to go to college or not does not belong to the student themselves, but rather the expectation, particularly among middle class and upper class children is made for them by the time they are able to walk. Is that healthy or proper?
Clearly the political push to have everyone who wants a college education be offered the means to obtain one is, on balance, good for this country. But there are consequences and some of those consequences are becoming apparent as a larger percentage of students never get a degree, yet they pay the price for their lack of completion.
Not surprisingly, academics and policy wonks are talking about the issue and maybe there is a public relations role for the government, but I think clearly the initial responsibility must come down on K-12 schools to make sure their graduates have the skills and mentality to succeed at college. If that were happening then the question of appropriateness boils down to student desire and nothing else. Oh, were that the way of the world.