The Promise — and Cost — of a College Education

Higher education has changed shape in the past fifty or so years, and the rate of change only seems to be increasing. To paint with a broad brush, we’re moving from a liberal-arts curriculum to something that looks a lot more like vocational training.

There was a time, not so long ago, that a college education was the ticket into a middle-class life, and this is a promise that many people still believe. It is the carrot held out to get students, young and old, to devote years of their lives to study. But at the same time, as the cost of education has increased, and more and more of the U.S. population takes advantage of the educational system, the focus of college seems to be changing.

College as an Investment

The cost of a four-year education is currently north of $150,000, and the savvy shopper is asking about the return on investment for such an expenditure. On the flip side, many careers that used to be vocational now require a 4-year degree just to get in the door. More and more people are going into debt just to get a toe into the job market.

Lightmatter chimp thinker
Is it the power of education, or the prestige of graduating?

While a college education is often required for a career (or even just to get a job), the pay scales have not adjusted for the increased cost of getting in. And more than ever, what we choose to study is looked at not just as a skill set, but as a label, a defining part of who we are.

College has moved more and more toward vocational training. That’s not the colleges’ choice; it’s been driven by market pressures — both the job market itself and the increasing cost of education. Education, as education and not vocational training, is out of favor with many people. Yet education for its own sake is a very middle-class value. The change in education is just one of many examples of how the middle class is shrinking — not just financially, but culturally as well.

Even when schools are touting their ability to teach us how to think effectively, that’s not what many employers are looking for. In the new era of computer-assisted human resources and quick online application for jobs, having the exactly right credential can get your resume looked at.

Social Class and Education are Linked but Not the Same

The three-component theory of stratification, also known as Weberian Stratification (Max Weber 1864 – 1920), says that stratification can be based on wealth, prestige, and power. Educational systems have traditionally been used to grant certain types of prestige. That’s why we call people with Ph.D.s “Doctor” — it’s a way of recognizing their status.

Traditionally, the education system in the U.S. (and elsewhere) has interacted heavily with other prestige systems, including those associated with ascribed status. Or, to put it more bluntly, people were more likely to go further in education if they were rich, white, and male.

That’s changed in recent years, with many previously under-served populations gaining access to college-level education. Problem solved, right? Three troubles have crept up on us in this period of transition.

1) It Was Never Just Education

The first is that while access to higher education has gone up, its value was traditionally a synergy with ascribed statuses. But despite greater and greater access to higher ed, the U.S. still struggles with classism, racism, and sexism.

While our image of the college graduate is of someone with access to the halls of power, educational prestige alone has never been enough to counterbalance the other (less savory) cultural aspects that open doors.  The promise of a college education has been overstated precisely because we’re often unwilling to admit the power that social networks play in short-term job applications and long-term career growth.

2) More Graduates, Fewer Careers

While the number of people who, on paper, “should” have access to the middle class is growing, the actual size of the middle class has been shrinking. That means that more and more people are spending their money to get a chance at a middle-class life, but the number of “winners” is going down. Oddly, the cost of education has not (yet) been falling to mirror this glut in the market for college-educated people.

The continued rise in educational cost is partly because it’s “the only game in town.” We have to pay to play this lottery, because there are few routes to the middle class outside of jumping through the right hoops. Sure, maybe the rare person can skip a few steps through native talent, but that’s not the way to bet.

3) Prestige as a Unified System

In our rush to remove racism and sexism from America’s mind, we’ve managed to deeply institute classism as the defining prestige system — and further, to define class more and more through wealth and access to resources.

This trend (toward using money as a more important measure of a person’s social worth) has led to a deeper institutionalization of class. At the same time, social mobility in America doesn’t live up to our myths about it. In fact, some have argued recently that the new upper class, the 1%, have pulled the ladder up behind themselves.

We sometimes seem to have lost the other prestige systems that used to counterbalance the assumption that “wealth = prestige.” In other words, we need to remember the value of education isn’t only measured in cash at the end of the day. It’s measured in good decisions that benefit the country as a whole.

When we undervalue parallel systems of prestige and rely on money as the only yardstick of status — as exemplified by the idea that the value of an education can be measured by the paycheck it leads to — we’re the ones who end up paying the cost. And that cost is far more than $150,000.


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