Letter to the New Yorker: “The Cost of College”

Nicholas Lemann concludes his piece on student debt with a few words extolling the societal benefits of higher education (Comment, May 28th). Perhaps, but the dollar value of a college degree for many students is not clear. While there is considerable debate over the numbers, it seems that about half of all jobs in the foreseeable future will require a four-year college degree. If our society needs half our workers to do skilled work that doesn’t require four-year degrees, our obsession with making college available to all seems destined to disappoint. There’s a flip side to the studies that promote the benefits of college: if college-educated workers are now making eighty-four per cent more than high-school graduates, up from forty per cent more in 1983, it means that those who can’t afford a college degree have fallen radically behind. We need to respect the fifty per cent of workers who do so many essential jobs, and we need to pay them a living wage. Part of the desperation for a college education is that the gap between the rich and the rest of society has grown so large that everyone except the very few winners in our brave new economy will lead lives that are much less prosperous than those of their parents.

Tim Butterworth
Associate Fellow
Institute for Policy Studies
Chesterfield, NH