Who Needs College? The Answer Might Surprise Newsweek

Is college fast becoming irrelevant for many or most students? Newsweek made the case last week in a much-discussed cover story. Intriguingly, it made a similar case a generation ago, in another much-discussed cover story titled, "Who Needs College?"

In the spirit of higher education, here's a pop quiz. Below are four passages from Newsweek. See if you can discern which came from their 1976 story and which came from the 2012 story.

1. Until quite recently the rewards of higher education were overwhelmingly clear: college graduates got better jobs earned more money and had almost unchallenged access to political power and social prestige. In short a college diploma was seen as a necessary ticket for the journey through American life.

2. [Middle-class parents] are concerned about soaring costs which put enormous strain on all but the fattest family budgets... They also worry whether their children will find themselves well prepared for the world of work after graduation.

3. The statistics that depict the recent drop in the monetary value of a traditional college education are compelling... By all estimates, the rising costs of college have been paced by diminished economic returns on the college investment.

4. The current buyers' market for college graduates... has had an alarming effect on overall employment: Desperate Ph.Ds take jobs a master's degree could once command, the M.A.'s land positions once taken by bachelor's holders -- and those at the bottom of the ladder, with no higher education at all, suddenly find that the only posts they can count on are already filled by their "overeducated" fellow citizens.

Now toss away your Scantron and No. 2 pencil. All four of those passages came from the 1976 article.

It was Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr who coined the expression, "plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose." Clearly he subscribed to Newsweek.

It seems amusing today that the magazine would have taken such an alarmist position a generation ago. Yet anxiety exists at every step. College's Golden Age is always seen as in the past, and its Dark Age is always seen in the imminent dawn.

That's why Newsweek's 1976 cover comically displayed two recent graduates, in cap and gown, toiling away at a construction site. That's why the accompanying article brooded over horror stories such as a Columbia University Ph.D. graduate who became a welder and a Phi Beta Kappa woman who settled for a job as a restaurant manager.

The article cautioned that, while a college degree in 1969 meant a 24 percent income boost on average over a high-school graduate's income, that figure had tumbled to 6 percent by 1976.

What is that figure today? Even Megan McArdle, author of the 2012 feature, conceded: "College graduates now make 80 percent more than people who have only a high-school diploma, and though there are no precise estimates, the wage premium for an elite school seems to be even higher."

McArdle's anxiety over a college bubble lacks crucial context (discussed here). Her narrative is especially disappointing in the manner in which it feeds a culture that appears to be increasingly anti-intellectual.

The 1970s were the swan song for an industrial era in which Americans could hope to maintain middle-class status through careers and industries that have since been shipped overseas. We have long known that the information era will demand more college, not less.

The relationship between higher education and the aspirations of a student is constantly being renegotiated. It is not being eliminated. Not in 1976, and certainly not today.

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