The developers of the SAT have come under fire for a plan to give every test taker an “adversity score” (see Controversy)—the latest skirmish in the multifront war over college. Or maybe it’s better to call it, as Michael Grunwald in Politico.com does, the war on college. Everyone wants in on this one. Republicans see the university as a bastion of liberalism, and many take a dim view of courses of study with no pragmatic application to getting a post-graduation job. Many liberals, on the other hand, seem to have given up on the university’s intellectual mission and see it as a blunt instrument for leveling advantages. Finally, there is the army of the sensible—all those columnists and personal finance experts explaining that a four-year university is too expensive, so parents should look for “value” and send their kids to a community college. Every week, we could devote this magazine’s Making Money page to the endless stream of articles about whether college is really worth it.
The truth is that by almost any measure, it is. Yes, college costs too much—although the average student loan balance is still less than the $36,000 price of an average new car. Yes, campuses lack political diversity, and elite universities remain inaccessible to most Americans. But in strictly practical terms, the four-year-college degree is overwhelmingly a necessary, though no longer sufficient, route into America’s centers of opportunity in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. It is also a valuable rite of passage to adulthood. I was one of the people lucky enough in college to have what the College Board’s David Coleman calls a “transformative experience,” and I hope my son has that, too. There’s a lot to fix in higher ed, but the people trying to tell you college isn’t worth it aren’t really thinking about your kids’ future. They’re asking you to trade it for their personal agenda.