My husband’s favorite joke to tell our son is, “You have a choice: you can either have a sibling or go to college — because we can’t afford to send two kids to college.”

I tell him not to worry because by the time our kids are college-aged, I think the cost and delivery model will be very different than it is today. He thinks I’m dead wrong. So I did a little dance when his Economist came in the mail with the headline:

The whole world is going to university. Is it worth it?


It is true that MOOCs have yet to disrupt universities as many people predicted. It is also true that an investment in a college degree still seems to be worth it, with an average of around 15% more in annual pay for those with a four-year degree. But, as The Economist points out, the range is vast, from +21% to -21%. Those negative numbers? Those mean it could be more of a risk than a guarantee.

The charter school world and most of education reform targeted at low-income children is dominated by schools with the singular goal of college preparation. This has always made me sort of sad. Not because I don’t think low-income kids should go to college, but because I’m not convinced that this is the most sure-fire way to lift them out of poverty.

Here are some tidbits from The Economist Special Report that I think support my worries:

America’s universities are failing to deliver equity. People are prepared to pay through the nose to buy advantage for their children, so top institutions charge ever higher prices and acquire ever more resources, while those at the bottom get less.

Harvard degrees are valuable because there are so few of them. Harvard therefore has no incentive to make them cheaper or to produce more of them: that would make them less precious.

Authors of Academically Adrift found that 45% of their sample showed no significant gains on a test of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing between students’ first and third years of college.

Tenured-faculty spend less and less time with undergraduates. Academically Adrift concludes that “no actors in the university system are primarily interested in undergraduate student academic growth.”

In real terms, tuition fees have nearly doubled over 20 years. Nearly a third of students in the U.S. are in default, and the rate is rising.

For-profit universities have a 64% drop-out rate.

One of the ways in which universities are ranked is the number of students they reject. I fear we may be inadvertently bolstering school rankings with rejection letters to our low-income children.

It is clear from the Special Report that elite universities are holding steady to their prestige while public and lower-tier universities are struggling.

Does anyone else feel like we need to address these trends in conjunction with the obsession of college preparation for low-income kids?