February 16, 2018

The Big Question of 2011: Who Needs College? | From the Bell Tower

In a column near the end of 2010, I had some fun with the crazy antics of college presidents, faculty, students, and, yes, even librarians. In my year-end review, I wondered if 2011 would lead to more wild surprises.

Sure, there were still the occasional DUIs by college administrators, a bizarre love triangle, silly student pranks and, for reasons no one can comprehend, an outbreak of (alleged) pimping professors and faculty motorcycle-gang drug dealers. Despite this constant stream of what-were-they-thinking stories, fewer paid attention in 2011. The higher-education crowd was too fixated on another important question—whether anyone needed to go to college at all.

Sure, college is four—or five, maybe six—years of fun, but with the economy still in the tank, student debt pushing many to join the Occupy movement, and more jobless  or underemployed college graduates wondering what good their degrees did them, it seems like a natural question: who needs college?

A bad idea?
Early in 2011, I wrote a column inspired by James Altucher, a financial expert who was warning parents not to send their children to college. Altucher’s calculations caused him to conclude that an undergraduate degree was a poor investment. When you factored in the current costs, the future cost of mountainous debt, and the opportunity costs of giving up four or five years of trying to succeed on your own, the college value proposition was a bad deal. Altucher made the point that given the large numbers of unemployed and underemployed college graduates, college was simply a bad idea—and he had no intention of sending his children.

I argued that Altucher had it wrong. Yes, things looked bad for college students in 2011, but all the analysis points to a better quality of life—in the long run—for college grads. Altucher also overlooked the social benefits that accrue from a society populated by liberally educated citizens. But looking back at 2011, it appears that Altucher was ahead of the trend in pointing out the failures of the current system.

Asking the question
In 2010, the most celebrated books about higher education were the most critical about its failings. In 2011, the most talked-about book fueled the why-go-to-college movement with incendiary research results that questioned whether higher education accomplished much at all.

Arum’s and Roska’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, to which I dedicated a column, was recently selected as one of 2011’s best books about higher education. While most books critiquing higher education are themselves the target of critics, it seemed difficult to find anyone refuting Arum’s and Roska’s solid research and findings. The authors sought to make a case for improvements to college education, unlike others who wanted to use the book as evidence that many students neither needed nor benefitted from college. Indeed, Academically Adrift generated debate about the value of higher education for much of 2011, and was cited in numerous articles and essays on the future of higher education.

Even college presidents lacked confidence in the future. A Chronicle of Higher Education survey of approximately 1000 college presidents revealed that one in three respondents believed that higher education would face real trouble in the near future, including challenges involving unmotivated and unengaged students. College presidents were equally worried about an educational system in which the divide between the haves and have-nots was rapidly increasing, along with public anxiety about tuition and student debt. The issue of whether higher education is simply too costly for the average citizen—and an unhealthy drain on the American economy—even appeared as one of the topics  in the New York Times“Room for Debate” column in August. Those who contributed to the debate acknowledged the critical challenges facing the American higher-education system, but the majority believed that it was still the best system in the world—and that it provides value to those who earn degrees. (One dissenter was Ohio University’s Richard Vedder, but that’s no surprise.)

Drop out, get paid
One Times debater attracted significant attention in 2011 for putting his money where his mouth is. Peter Thiel, the billionaire cofounder of PayPal, started his own “reverse-scholarship” program by paying a handful of selected students not to go to college. Thiel’s “20 Under 20” program provided students with $100,000 grants to drop out of college and undertake an entrepreneurial venture. As Thiel made clear in his debate piece, college is no longer the surefire path to success it once was. While his detractors ridiculed the program, pointing to the extremely rare cases of college dropouts who achieve great success, Thiel may have done more than anyone else in 2011 to promote the why-go-to-college movement. Will that movement make more prospective students and their parents question college’s necessity? There is a definite economizing trend, with students looking to spend as little as possible on a college degree with no career guarantees. Even affluent students, who could afford private liberal-arts college educations, are opting for community colleges.

2012: the year of finding value
Where is this all leading? As more students and their parents are urged to think the previously unthinkable, the higher-education industry needs to make a clear case for why it offers a great investment. That means communicating to the public a rationale for the high cost of tuition, and also why today’s students should devote four to six years to getting that degree—and 20 years of substantial loan payments. It is hard to do that when the public is constantly reminded of the sky-high salaries of college presidents. The tone of the comments on almost any article about higher education signals a clear mad-as-hell attitude.

In 2012, the higher-education industry needs to respond to two consecutive years of attacks—in which the academic press and the public have portrayed college as ineffective, wasteful, and a poor investment for individuals and taxpayers. The next logical movement is the value proposition—focusing on why higher education offers great value. There’s not much that can be done about the awful economy and the lack of job opportunities for graduates, so expect to continue seeing stories about college grads living at home with mom and dad. But it would help to look at accountability and assessment measures to demonstrate that when students graduate, they have changed—they have improved and are ready for a productive future. It might also help if higher education leaders would pay more attention to creating institutional change that disrupts the status quo.

This year, academic libraries and value will also go together well. I’ve already seen references to library conferences with a value theme, and I imagine we’ll see quite a few presentations and articles on the importance of demonstrating the library’s value to the institution. That means that academic librarians, like our top administrators, will need to think deeply about the resources and services that they deliver, and look for ways to show how the library is contributing to student and faculty productivity, while making effective use of university resources.

It won’t be easy, but if we fail to work collectively to reverse higher education’s tarnished image and find new ways to deliver the value that everyone wants and expects, I shudder to think what we’ll be talking about as we head into 2013.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. American consumers will be sending the education business model a message that more education does not automatically equal more pay, or pay at all. There may be a painful adjustment in store for both higher educators and the students if the US cannot find balance between the value of education and the benefit of it.