The college-for-all crusade has outlived its usefulness. Time to ditch it. Like the crusade to make all Americans homeowners, it's now doing more harm than good. It looms as the largest mistake in educational policy since World War II, even though higher education's expansion also ranks as one of America's great postwar triumphs.
Consider. In 1940, fewer than 5 percent of Americans had a college degree. Going to college was "a privilege reserved for the brightest or the most affluent" high-school graduates, wrote Diane Ravitch in her history of U.S. education, "The Troubled Crusade." No more. At last count, roughly 40 percent of Americans had some sort of college degree: about 30 percent a bachelor's degree from a four-year institution; the rest associate degrees from community colleges.
Starting with the GI Bill in 1944, governments at all levels promoted college. From 1947 to 1980, enrollments jumped from 2.3 million to 12.1 million. In the 1940s, private colleges and universities accounted for about half. By the 1980s, state schools -- offering heavily subsidized tuitions -- represented nearly four-fifths. Aside from a democratic impulse, the surge reflected "the shift in the occupational structure to professional, technical, clerical, and managerial work," noted Ravitch. The economy demanded higher skills; college led to better-paying jobs.