What Is College Worth?

Chester E. Finn, Jr.

Winter 2019

College graduates earn more money and are healthier, happier, and less likely to get divorced than people who do not have such degrees. Their children have better outcomes and are more likely to go to college themselves. Simply put, a college education is the surest way to "the good life." Given that the American idea is founded on a belief in equality, it follows that most of us feel that everyone should have a chance to get a college degree. In light of all the benefits that redound to graduates, it would be not just discriminatory but downright un-American to suggest that some people ought not to go.

And given the cost of tuition, demands that government pay for college have inevitably followed. Barack Obama declared that community college — the kind that yields an associate's degree, which may be transferable to a four-year institution — should be "free and universal." Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Andrew Cuomo, and recent Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous have all proposed versions of free college tuition, whether it be for everyone, for those attending in-state public universities, for those with family incomes under a certain threshold, or for people who meet some other set of criteria.

Many significant left-leaning and mainstream organizations push for more kids to matriculate and complete a degree: The Education Trust, America Achieves, Complete College America, the College Board, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Lumina Foundation, to name a few. The Gates Foundation's stated goal, for example, is "to ensure that all students who seek the opportunity are able to complete a high-quality, affordable postsecondary education that leads to a sustaining career."

There is some bipartisan support for such proposals as well. Last year, in a widely read Brookings publication, former Obama-era education secretary Arne Duncan and Bush-era White House policy staffer John Bridgeland joined the college-for-all chorus: "[W]e see a new future where the vast majority of jobs will require some level of postsecondary education. From either perspective, it's clear that 'college for all' should become our national aspiration." They went on to declare that college — at least the first two years of it — should be free for all, although they paint with a broad brush when depicting the range of studies that may qualify as collegiate.

The reasoning seemed, and to many still seems, unimpeachable. People with bachelor's degrees and other college credentials fare better than those without. There won't be many good jobs tomorrow for individuals lacking such an education. (When General Motors recently announced the laying off of many thousands of workers in its plants and offices, company executives made clear that they're still hiring people with expertise in engineering, electronics, and such.) What's more, college is the surest path to upward mobility, not to mention a host of other benefits. Why, in a society obsessed with equity of every kind, should wealthy white and Asian kids have easier access than underserved minority kids to the manifold benefits of a college degree? And why, in an education system that has come to equate any sort of "tracking" with invidious discrimination, would we consign some kids to narrow forms of "career" education while others get access to the cornucopia of opportunities provided by a college degree?

But as a greater share of high-school graduates go on to college and an increasing share of college students fail to finish their degrees, it is becoming clear that college, at least college in its classic model, may not be the right path for everyone. While college for all is a noble goal, in our current education system it may be doing more harm than good. Addressing this problem will require making some hard choices.


The push to open the ivy gates to more people has a long and generally honorable history in America. The end of World War II brought the G.I. Bill of Rights. In 1960, California adopted its "Master Plan for Higher Education," which distinguished separate but complimentary roles for three tiers of public post-secondary institutions while effectively giving every high-school graduate access to at least one of them. A half-decade later, Congress passed the Higher Education Act, which essentially placed a big federal bet on giving more students voucher-like grants to go to college, rather than giving direct subsidies to the institutions themselves. (Plenty of the latter also flowed — and flows today — into university coffers, but those funds come mostly via federal research grants and contracts.)

Helping more people afford college while increasing the capacity of higher education to serve more students is not, however, quite the same thing as propagating the view that everyone ought to go to college. And it certainly doesn't require the pointed neglect of other post-secondary pathways that has been mainstream education policy (and philanthropic intent) in America for the past several decades. Although the deprecation of other pathways — most evident in the dwindling "vocational education" offerings and their ever-lower reputation — has taken place with the most liberal of intentions, it has also been accompanied by unfortunate unintended consequences.

Most obvious is the perplexing question of what exactly "college" means nowadays. The late John Silber, longtime president of Boston University, once remarked that the term "postsecondary education" was coined by those who had no answer to the question "higher than what?" Is college simply what follows after high school, itself arguably an extension of primary and middle school, or does entering college denote a personal watershed, a shift from the obligatory to the volitional, and an intellectual milestone of some sort?

The answer to that question is rooted in the nation's K-12 system. More than 35 years since President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education declared the U.S. to be a "nation at risk" due to the academic failings of our primary and secondary schools, the country has yet to fix its public-education system. We are very far from the goal of having every high-school graduate adequately prepared to enter the workforce, let alone prepared for what we used to mean by college. Although there's much talk of school standards designed to yield graduates who are "college and career ready," the grim fact remains that, in recent years, 96% of colleges enrolled students who required remediation, and more than 200 schools placed more than half of their incoming students in at least one remedial course. In Maryland, 35% of community-college matriculants need remediation in reading and writing, while a full two-thirds need such catch-up in math.

My colleague Michael Petrilli at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute notes that the completion rate for bachelor's degrees within eight years of entry has long hovered below 40% — almost precisely where the National Assessment of Educational Progress places the extent of "college readiness" in reading among 12th graders. Yet the matriculation rate — the share of those graduating from high school who head straight into some sort of college — is about 70%. It's scarcely surprising that so many of them need remediation — and that so few make it to graduation. Simply raising the matriculation rate closer to 100% will only exacerbate this problem.

Most matriculants enter America's thousands of open-admission colleges, institutions charged with taking (and heavily subsidizing) all who apply. Many such institutions are also hungry for students — and for the state appropriations and tuition dollars that roughly correspond with enrollments — because the number of entering students has actually declined since 2010, when the job market began to recover from the Great Recession. Total enrollments in U.S. degree-granting institutions fell by 1.7 million between 2011 and 2017. Community colleges in particular are struggling to fill chairs. The Community College of Baltimore County's enrollment, for example, shrank from 72,000 to 62,000 between 2009 and 2018. And while high-school graduation rates have risen in recent years (partly owing to the spread of unsavory practices and shortcuts designed to get more diplomas into more hands with little regard for academic achievement), the total number of high-school graduates is level in much of the country and expected to decline nationally after 2025.

In response, many open-enrollment campuses are adding high-school students to their headcounts via the fast-spreading phenomenon of "dual enrollment," whereby the same course counts for both high-school and college credit — and in many locales taxpayers pay twice for it. Like Advanced Placement courses, dual enrollment can be a boon for strong students who have exhausted their high school's curricular offerings and are ready for more challenging classes, but a worrying number of dual-enrollment participants, though they must be officially deemed "college-ready" to be eligible for such classes, also turn out to need remediation when they actually matriculate. (Dual-enrollment programs also suffer from uneven — to put it mildly — quality control, as the credit one gets at the end of a course depends exclusively on the grade from one's instructor, not on any sort of external assessment or general standard.)

On reflection, this widespread unreadiness is not surprising. When you declare that everyone — or almost everyone — should graduate from high school and enter college, you abruptly face the reality that a very large proportion of young Americans haven't learned enough in 12 or 13 years of school to qualify for what we once meant by a high-school diploma, much less what we once meant by college admission. It's simply unrealistic to expect to have it both ways: universal and meeting a respectable standard. Recall that 70% to 80% of those who have volunteered for the Army in recent years have been rejected due to their unsatisfactory physical or educational condition (or both). Unlike the majority of American colleges, however, the all-volunteer Army is under no obligation to admit everyone.

We have multiple gauges of "college readiness" among high-school seniors, such as the American College Testing (ACT) program's estimate of how many of its test-takers earn scores that suggest they can pass entry-level college courses without remediation. That's a low bar, defined as a 75% chance of obtaining at least a C grade in "credit-bearing first-year college courses" (and by now grade inflation has practically eliminated grades lower than C, and Cs are themselves becoming an endangered species). Low as the bar is, however, just 27% of high schoolers sitting for the ACT are clearing it in all four fields covered by the exam: science, math, reading, and writing. Easing the standard to three of the four subjects boosts the college-readiness rate to 39% — about where the National Assessment places it for reading. The other 61% are not college-ready, yet most will matriculate.

In short, we're sending millions of young people to college who aren't academically prepared to succeed there. Many will understandably grow frustrated and unhappy as a result, even as they go (often deeply) into debt for the experience. The result is that many drop out without a degree, often embittered by the experience and facing years of student-loan payments. And these debts can be substantial: In 2017, Forbes estimates, 44 million Americans owed a total of $1.3 trillion in college debt, second only to home mortgages and well ahead of both car loans and credit-card debt.

In an upscale Midwestern suburb, the district superintendent tells me that, while almost everyone graduates from his town's high schools and 90% enter college, only 60% earn degrees. These rates are significantly better than the national average but still far short of the goal. Even these comparatively decent statistics represent disappointment for families, a seeming failure by the school system, a waste of human capital, and a big problem for the affected young people. And all this is in a community that's awash in prosperous, college-educated parents.

We have been dealing with this problem for decades now, and we have identified four main categories of remedy. We could do a dramatically better job of preparing millions more kids for college. We could send fewer young people into college, allowing only those who are likely to succeed. We could redefine and modernize what we mean by college. Or we could just water down the familiar version. Regrettably, the last of those options is most likely to be followed, at least for the foreseeable future.


Fixing schools — raising standards, boosting achievement — has been the name of the game among education reformers (myself included) since A Nation at Risk sounded the alarm in 1983. Efforts have been enormous and expensive. At the national level alone, we've been through Goals 2000, the Improving America's Schools Act, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, the Every Student Succeeds Act, and many smaller attempts at reform. At the same time, states have been striving in many ways and on many fronts to boost their own levels of education success: more accountability, better teachers, more technology, virtual learning, charter schools, vouchers, preschool, new standards, more AP, more dual enrollment, and a host of other ideas. Yet 35 years after ringing the alarm, we have next to nothing to show for all this by way of improved overall results at the high-school level.

This is not to say that reformers' efforts have been a total waste. We've seen gains in the early grades, especially in math and particularly for poor and minority children, though such gains have plateaued in the past decade. A couple of states — Massachusetts is the poster child — have become globally competitive, coming close to the standard-setting Asian nations on several metrics, though Bay State leaders have seen a flattening of those gains, too. More kids nationwide are taking part in AP classes, and more are getting "qualifying scores" (three or higher on a five-point scale), although the passing rate has dipped a bit. But high schools in general aren't much reformed, and the only major metric to show gains in recent years — graduation rates — may be as much the product of corner-cutting as of real gains. 

We should not give up the fight to improve our high schools and the schools that feed kids into them. Ultimately, we will have to improve them if America is going to remain economically and technologically competitive. But after years of effort with so little to show for it, we have to recognize that high-school reform is not going to make a greater proportion of graduates truly ready for college anytime soon.


A solid case can be made that our very fixation on sending everyone to college has fed our seeming inability to prepare more young people to succeed there. It has certainly contributed to the near-demise of alternative high-school pathways, notably what was formerly called "vocational education" and is now more fashionably termed "career and technical education" (CTE). That used to be where one found (or sent) kids who didn't look like "college material" or who were keener to prepare for a job than for more time in classrooms. But as educators and policymakers turned almost all their energies to the pursuit of "equity," anything that smacked of "tracking" was out of bounds. We seem to have decided that if college is right for some kids, it must be a right for all of them; after all, we can't allow high-school administrators to decide who gets a chance at the good life and who gets sent to "shop class."

As a result, many young people are receiving a lower-quality education. Though lots of them arrive in ninth grade from middle schools that failed to equip them even with basic skills and knowledge, nearly everyone is placed into a "college prep" curriculum. Add to that the pressure to ensure that nearly everyone graduates, and it was inevitable that grades would inflate and a lot of courses would become easier. Algebra is still called algebra, but it is often something more akin to remedial middle-school arithmetic and pre-algebra. The students in 11th-grade English may be reading major works of literature and writing multi-page analyses of them, but they are more likely to be fooling around with "young adult" novels, sports biographies, vocabulary words, and grammar worksheets.

My colleagues at the Fordham Institute released a study in September showing that "more than one-third of the [North Carolina high-school] students who received Bs from their teachers in Algebra 1 failed to score 'proficient'" on the statewide end-of-course exam in that subject. That same month, the Washington Post reported that the generally well-regarded schools in the Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Maryland, are experiencing a tsunami of inflated grades:

New data show the percentage of A's across core math courses nearly doubled from the first semester of 2014-2015 to last school year, rising from 16 percent to almost 32 percent. B's rose more modestly while C's, D's and E's dipped. Similarly, more students got A's in English, science and Advanced Placement courses, in a profusion of high marks that is stirring concerns that students and parents may be getting a false sense of proficiency.

Of course, there remain more demanding and rigorous options in many high schools, like externally calibrated offerings such as AP and International Baccalaureate courses, but with rare exceptions the kids taking them are drawn from the not-quite 40% who would be deemed college-ready anyway.

Happily for the remaining 60% of students — or, more realistically, for their younger siblings — the last couple of years have also brought glimmers of revived interest in high-quality CTE and real apprenticeships. Maryland lawmakers, for example, recently passed a measure stating that, by 2025, 45% of high-school students in the state should "successfully complete a CTE program, earn industry-recognized occupational or skill credentials, or complete a registered youth or other apprenticeship before graduating." This sort of declaration is not intended to resurrect your grandfather's classes in woodworking and sheet-metal bending (or your grandmother's in home economics), but to bring about systematic preparation for modern careers in fields like cybersecurity, allied health professions, and information technology.

Properly done, sophisticated CTE offerings in high school mesh nicely with college classes and majors that are themselves oriented more toward technical skills and career preparation than traditional liberal arts. A group called the National Skills Coalition estimates that nearly half of U.S. job openings between 2014 and 2024 require "middle skills," defined as more than high school but less than a bachelor's degree. Many community colleges and a growing number of four-year institutions offer such options — leading, of course, to a different outcry over the decline of "liberal education." But we have a long way to go before America's secondary and post-secondary offerings in these realms begin to compare in scale or quality with those of many competitor nations, and perhaps even farther to go before educators on the one hand and American parents on the other stop looking down their noses at most such offerings as places where the unsmart and the unmotivated belong.

Much to their credit, in their recent plea for "free college for all," Arne Duncan and John Bridgeland made clear that the idea of "college" need not be limited to four-year, liberal-arts-style education: "[P]ostsecondary education can also lead to certificates and open doors to thousands of well-paying jobs, including engine-maintenance technicians, plumbers, electricians, dental hygienists, and radiologic technicians." This broadening of college-level curricula has much to be said for it, provided it is done with rigorous standards and demonstrated outcomes. But it's deeply disruptive to entrenched norms and tenured faculties, and it cannot be successfully accomplished, at least not at scale, without a great many better-prepared young people entering into such courses of study. 


Of course, the fastest, surest way to increase the share of young people who qualify as "prepared" for college is to loosen the standard for adequate preparation. Once these students arrive on campus, what we mean by "college" will have to change too, not by judicious curricular broadening but by lowering academic standards.

It's already easy to get into most colleges, so as more and more unprepared students matriculate, the distinction between "credit-bearing" and "remedial" courses will not survive for long. The "developmental" courses that are meant to fill in the gaps to prepare students for "real" college classes will become the real thing themselves. Otherwise, graduating in four years will become impossible for too many students, and with soaring college costs, few will be willing to stay an extra year or two to get caught up. (Indeed, there's much pressure to shrink it to three years.) If those starting college do not know as much as was formerly required, it's unreasonable to expect that, four years later, graduates will know as much as their predecessors were expected to know.  

There has already been widespread slippage on this front. Some colleges are starting to replace remedial and developmental courses with something called "corequisite" classes. California legislators have banned remedial classes in the state's many community colleges, and the middle tier of their public higher-education triad — the Cal State university system — has decided to turn each campus loose to devise alternatives. At least five other states are heading in similar directions, all broadly seeking to place every new college student into credit-bearing courses and then supply some sort of additional academic support to get them up to speed. An influential advocacy group named Complete College America urges institutions to "[i]ncrease gateway course completion within the first year by enrolling entering students into the college-level math and English courses, providing those who need additional help a concurrent course or lab that offers just-in-time academic support."

This historic shift is typically promoted as a way to save time for students and to save money for them, as well as for the colleges and the state. (Estimates of the annual cost of remedial higher education run around $7 billion.) Advocates of such changes also note that remedial courses have had high dropout rates, leading many young people to quit college altogether.

They are right about the problem. But their recommended solution simply papers over the fact that they are defining down the "deviancy" of arriving at college unready to benefit from what is taught there. So long as colleges crave more students, however, and so long as proper liberals want to push practically everyone into and through something called college, and so long as nobody seems able to repair the K-12 schools from which so many graduate, this practice is bound to expand. And so more and more students will get college degrees that mean less and less.


Because America has no decent gauge of what college students actually do (or don't) learn, we have no way of documenting the extent to which easier entry is already accompanied by easier exit, but logically it must be.

Ample evidence attests to the spread of grade inflation on campuses, including at the nation's most illustrious institutions; over half the Harvard class of 2015 had GPAs of A-minus or better. And there is much anecdotal evidence of employers hiring bachelor's degree holders who are so poorly educated — and so arrogant, lazy, and entitled — that they have begun to confine their searches to candidates with postgraduate degrees. That sort of credential inflation will ultimately raise everybody's costs, of course, and more important, defeats the main purpose of sending everyone to college in the first place — equality. It will eventually turn the bachelor's degree, and certainly the associate's degree, into tomorrow's version of today's devalued but ubiquitous high-school diploma.

It's no accident that top-ranked universities get harder and harder to get into; exactly the same thing is happening in top-ranked secondary schools, both the public kind like Stuyvesant (in New York) and Thomas Jefferson (in the Virginia suburbs of Washington) and the private kind like Andover and Sidwell Friends. As diplomas and degrees slowly become universal, they inevitably lose value in the real-world marketplace of jobs — and in the shadowy status hierarchies by which elites seek to distinguish themselves and advantage their progeny. People will always find ways to compete. 

It's human nature, and it can be seen everywhere in education. For example, almost 3 million students now take some 5 million AP exams every year. As the AP program grows more democratic, a number of posh prep schools (including, ironically, several that helped create the program back in the 1950s) are eschewing it, even as pricey private colleges demand 4s or 5s instead of the traditional AP score of 3 before considering awarding credit to entering students. It's not that AP has gotten easier — it remains a praiseworthy academic gold standard — but that so many kids now partake in it that doing so no longer marks an individual or institution as very special.

None of this is reason to place onerous restrictions on opportunities to advance and advantage oneself by getting more education and earning more credentials. It is true that access to such opportunities has historically been lopsided and unfair. But if the credentials themselves are truly to help people land in the jobs, neighborhoods and socio-economic strata that those acquiring them aspire to, they must hold their value, whether that value is calibrated in classical liberal-arts terms or in true readiness to embark upon rewarding modern occupations. This means the credentials must denote bona fide accomplishment. How to escort a far larger (and more diverse) portion of the population to those true accomplishments and the accompanying credentials remains the fundamental challenge for American education. There's much to be said for broadening the scope of quality higher education and diversifying the credentials. Yet cheapening them is far easier and therefore extremely tempting to those who lead our schools and colleges, who make policy in state capitals, and who earnestly believe — always with the best of intentions — that diplomas and degrees are what matter, not the achievements they are meant to signify. Sadly, that belief leads to an expensive educational fraud that will eventually prove illusory and help no one.

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former assistant secretary of education for research and improvement.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.