Rising costs and declining enrollments, as well as the pandemic-accelerated rise of online learning, have created concerns about the future of traditional higher education. The number of students in college in the U.S. peaked in 2010, and the Pennsylvania state college system recently announced consolidation of some campuses to deal with the new reality (the declining number of high school graduates in Pennsylvania has reduced the pool of potential applicants). My own experience teaching online suggests there are some advantages (shorter commuting times!) but some clear disadvantages (it is much harder to get students to engage). And at residential campuses, much of the education takes place outside the classroom, so that is completely lost in an online environment. But recent developments do force us to consider the question, what is the purpose of college?

The earliest colleges and universities began in Europe during the Middle Ages. The first colleges in the U.S. were created to train clergy (Harvard, 1636, William & Mary, 1693, Yale, 1701).

For much of our history, very few people attended college; early colleges focused on training the elites, and their curriculum reflected that. The classic education included Greek, Latin, and history; it was training for people who were expected to lead society, not job training for future employees. The focus was on character development as much as knowledge.

Colleges as purveyors of practical knowledge began with Lincoln’s signing of the Morrill Act, which created the Land Grant colleges in 1862. The federal government helped states establish colleges whose focus was more practical, agricultural science and engineering. The Second Land Grant Act in 1890 extended the program to the southern states that had not been in the Union when the first one was passed, and this act required those states that had “whites only” admissions policies to create colleges for African American residents (which created many of the historically Black colleges in the South, such as N.C. A&T, Florida A&M, and S.C. State).

The greatest change in college education in the U.S. came with the GI Bill, which passed in 1944. This bill helped create the middle class by enabling many GIs from working class backgrounds to attend college. College enrollment went from 1.5 million in 1940 up to 8 million in 1970. Community colleges also expanded during the postwar period, and their low fees helped broaden the pool of people who could attend college.

Not everyone has been happy with the expansion of access to college, especially conservatives who saw the anti-war protests and campus radicalism of the 1960s as an assault on traditional values. One of the admonishments of the time was that those students should “get a job!” In more recent times, a Pew poll in 2017 found that a majority of Republicans felt that higher education was actually hurting the country.

Critics have argued that one does not need a college degree to get a well-paid job; a popular meme on Facebook encourages people to skip college and go into the trades by listing the wages of electricians and plumbers. If enhancing your ability to make money was the purpose of college, such a meme might make sense. But college should do more than that. College should help students mature, expose them to new things, get them out of their comfort zone so they can learn, help them be more analytical, teach them the ability to research things they want to understand better, digest information, communicate ideas, be good citizens, appreciate the arts, develop a healthy lifestyle, and various other things that help students be more productive, able to adapt to new situations, and live a fulfilling life. So instead of discouraging young people from going to college, I think the better question is why shouldn’t trades people go to college?

While some jobs that don’t require a college degree can pay well (unionized manufacturing jobs, the skilled trades), a recent study showed that the median college graduate will earn more than a million dollars more than the median high school graduate over their working lives. Critics of the system argue that many jobs now require college degrees unnecessarily; nothing that is learned only in college is a pre-requisite for being able to such jobs. Instead of job training, college seems to be a pre-selection process for some types of jobs.

As more people have college degrees, they become relatively less valuable in the competition for jobs. People earn advanced degrees in an attempt to distinguish themselves, and because of the more educated pool of applicants, employers can now seek new employees who have essentially paid for their own training by attending graduate school. But this has put new burdens on young job-seekers; by paying for their own training, they, not the employers, take the risk there may not be an opening that requires their skills.

While most people would benefit from a college education, it’s not for everyone. Certainly, after 12 years of schooling many high school graduates need a break. And of course given the high cost of college, it is fair to question if the benefits are worth the cost. But one of the reasons America became a world leader was we invested in the education of our population, and that investment yielded dividends that were greater than an increased GDP. Modern society requires lifetime learning, and college is an important part of that process.

Kent James has a doctorate in History and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is an adjunct in the History Department at Washington & Jefferson College.

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