A Gallup poll last summer found that confidence in US higher education has dropped significantly in the last decade, “to an historic low,” according to one publication. Colleges are being criticized from all sides: for being too liberal or too conservative, for attempting to “indoctrinate” their students, for not being "relevant" enough, for exploiting athletes, and for caring more about donors than students, among other things.
In fact, none of this is new. Culturally conflicted about education in general and about intellectuals and elites in particular, Americans have always had a complicated relationship with their institutions of higher education.
“Most of us… view our colleges with extremely mixed emotions… Many fathers are absolutely convinced that boys learn nothing in college but how to paddle the younger fellows in the fraternity, play football and basketball, and write home for more money… Parents who have never been to college ordinarily send their children with half a hope that it will be the key to a new and better world, but with half a fear that it will merely turn them into social butterflies… Those who have been through it themselves sometimes send their children in the earnest conviction that it is their greatest [opportunity] for a happy, useful, and prosperous life. But often they merely feel that, since they themselves lived through it without permanent damage, the children can probably do the same.”
These comments are taken from a 1952 study of Americans who had graduated from college in the first half of the 20th century. The data was drawn from a trove of over 10,000 responses to a 1947 survey organized by Time Magazine.
Today, we continue to send our children off to college, or they send themselves, in the hope that the investment of time and money will pay off, but with plenty of concerns about the system and its efficacies.
The 1947 data also tracked gradually decreasing interest in the humanities and a growing focus on practical subjects such as business and engineering and preparation for professional schools of medicine and law. The humanities recovered somewhat during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s as Baby Boomers filled the halls of higher learning. But the tide turned again in the early 21st century. Rising costs and concerns about economic stability led many students to gravitate toward programs tailored to specific jobs and career paths, in particular those promising higher salaries.
The study included what we would refer to today as R.O.I. (Return on Investment) figures expressed in terms of average incomes earned by graduates in various fields. Then, as now, average salaries were higher for those with engineering and science degrees than for humanities and social sciences majors. Still, as a whole, graduates from the first half of the 20th century enjoyed significant long-term financial benefits from earning a college degree. As the study’s authors put it, “Viewed strictly from a materialistic point of view, they are conspicuously successful… They make a great deal more money than their non-college contemporaries.”
Today, college graduates continue to substantially outearn their high school-only peers. And despite the many challenges facing our institutions of higher education, polls show that the great majority of their graduates, with some misgivings, are happy they went. The same was true three-quarters of a century ago.
To read more of Grant's compelling articles, please go to Bennett College Consulting.
Grant Calder has worked in College Consulting and Admissions Counseling for over 30 years and is Co-director of College Counseling at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia, where he also teaches American History and German. In the past, he has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University in Philadelphia, and the Middlesex and Choate boarding schools in New England. Additionally, he was a guest teacher at the Evangelisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster in Berlin, Germany.
Bennett International Education Consultancy works directly with hundreds of families each year across the globe. We support families by helping them make informed decisions about the best-fit schools for their children; with our guidance, they secure placement in preschools, private day schools, public/state schools, boarding schools, colleges & universities, including schools with particular programs, such as special needs support.