A big event happened a few years ago, and it has gone largely unnoticed. For the first time in American history, fewer people attended college than the year before. At first blush, the decline of college admissions does not appear to be a major event. Just another statistic. On the other hand, it may herald a significant change in American society.
Beginning college in the 1970’s and continuing on to graduate school in the 1980’s, many of my generation were able to earn enough money to pay for school, as well as meet their living expenses. At that time, it was possible for the lower-middle class to educate themselves, even without assistance from the state or their family. It was never easy, but it was possible. An ambitious lower class person could elevate themselves independent of family and government assistance. In this period, greater government assistance to the lower classes compensated for the assumed greater family assistance available to the lower-middle classes. It was surely helpful, but not altogether necessary. It is feared that current lower and lower-middle class students will not be able to support themselves through college, let alone graduate school.
College tuition today varies between 20 to nearly 60 thousand dollars per year; exclusive of living expenses and insurance. Wages over the last 25 years have not kept pace with the explosion in the cost of higher education. Assuming a bare minimal existence living on 10 thousand dollars per year, an 18 year old must earn between 40 and 80 thousand dollars (before taxes) to put themselves through college. There are few jobs available to an 18 year old student that would garner this level of income.
The current situation threatens to strangle and halt the upper mobility of American society. Sociologists have long considered a college education to be the gateway to the American middle class. A college education is increasingly restricted to upper-middle and upper class students. Scholarships are helpful to one or two percent of students; which effectively renders their usefulness as minimal. Do not forget that most government assistance must be paid back at interest. Recent changes to federal laws applaud increasingly punitive measures in the collection of delinquent student loans. The overall drift of higher education is to exclude the lower-middle and lower classes, and shake the spare change from the stolid middle class. This emerging educational dynamic may have a profound effect on American society.
Perhaps online internet colleges will fill the educational vacuum by offering a lower cost alternative. The internet colleges known to this author do not routinely engage in core research, nor do they publish with regularity in peer reviewed journals-the life blood of scientific progress. In the past 30 years of reviewing journals across several fields, I have never observed a citation from an internet college. Perhaps the internet colleges will become research institutions as well, but this is very expensive and would cut into their profit margins. Internet colleges currently occupy a lower tier of higher education. It is hoped that they will grow in quality while keeping tuition costs down. For the foreseeable future, elite employers will continue to draw their candidates from the most expensive brick and mortar schools. Top graduate school admission officers will likely discount graduates of internet colleges relative to traditional colleges.
Do not for a moment believe that all students of internet colleges are inferior. An intelligent and motivated student will learn, almost regardless of their impediments. The point is that the accomplishments of the hard working students of the internet colleges will likely be heavily discounted. It is suspected that two tiers of higher education will emerge, and the levels will be greatly influenced by family income, at the expense of personal merit.
As the American middle class increasingly fades into history, so does the promise of a meritocracy. It is completely American to dislike those who benefit from unmerited privileges. The concentration of education and wealth into a few families is a return to the Old World, or to adopt the status of many countries within Central or South America. The Old World was dying even before the Great War, and it has mimicked the New World ever since its collapse. The decrease of college admissions in this country points America towards its past. Perhaps the upper class students of traditional colleges should be given additional titles upon graduation. This would differentiate them from their less wealthy and privileged internet college counterparts. Consider the titles “count” or “your excellency.” Please leave comments regarding this post in the space provided below. Be sure to address me as “count” or “your excellency.”