How to explain? American confidence in higher education has dropped from 57% to 36% since 2015, per Gallup, a dramatic slide. So what changed? The mighty green lawns are still there, the dining clubs and blue chip professors, as well as the ability to borrow eye-watering amounts of money from public and private lenders without any real oversight.
Coming from overseas, the assumed value of a U.S. degree seems as strong as ever: Look at the pipeline from Yale to the Supreme Court, from the prime ministership of New Zealand to a visiting faculty role at Harvard, or, seemingly, from Harvard to Saturday Night Live for some reason? Granted, a lot of what I know about the college experience in the U.S. comes from The Secret History and National Lampoon’s Van Wilder, but it seems nice: living on campus without a job, renting a stately Victorian with six other undergrads, and soaking in the illustrious intellect and fancy faculty while walking around in slouchy jeans. Down Unda, I could only read photocopied work by Gayatri Spivak at university in amongst working at a supermarket deli in a red foam baseball cap; at Columbia, Spivak will teach her theory to you in person while you operate out of your topmost lobe.
To try to understand why the public has turned so sour on college, we can zoom in a little on the data. Among Americans surveyed by Gallup, 40% have only “some” confidence in higher education and 22% have “very little” confidence. Republicans had a more negative view, while “confidence among adults without a college degree and those aged 55 and older dropped nearly as much as Republicans’ since 2018,” the report notes. Are people who didn’t go to college the best judges of how good college is? I’m not sure.
Gallop did not “probe for reasons” for the drop in confidence, but noted that “the rising costs of postsecondary education likely play a significant role.” Here, I can relate. While I don’t have a U.S. education, I have been partaking in the ritual of student loan repayments for the past 15 years thanks to marriage, and for my getting no degree and being able to complete no streaks through the quad, $150,000 seems quite a ripoff.
Where is the value in a U.S. college degree, then? For my part, I enjoy watching commencement speeches on YouTube, which admittedly you can do without attending the college. Never forget the classic from DFW, in which, as Patricia Lockwood recalls, he “was basically like, ‘You know how sometimes you want to scream at a fat person in your mind?’ [Everyone cheers] ‘Well don’t!’”
Wisdom for the ages.