We are obsessed with college. Long gone are the days where higher education was seen as simply one path among many, a place for academically adept students to study arcane subjects. Nowadays, college is touted as a cultural and economic necessity. a universal stepping-stone into adulthood and employment. According to popular wisdom, this transformation was brought on by increased technological sophistication of the labor force, resulting in a job market that could only be filled by college graduates. From this perspective, college has taken an irreversible step forward into the public spotlight. Assuming that Neo-Luddites remain a fringe minority, the intersection of society and technology is unlikely to regress. Therefore, the future of higher education in America will likely end up hinging on the populist interrogation of every nook and cranny of our current system; problems that may have once remained concealed high atop the ivory tower decades ago are now becoming increasingly visible to all.
If nothing else, this will lead to a significant shift in the angle from which we analyze college as an institution—for most of the 20th century employment prospects did not depend on higher-education, but nowadays it is becoming incredibly difficult to attain a “good” job with only a high school diploma. As a result, economic outcomes have become the most prominent metric by which we judge the value and pay-off of post-secondary education. The moment that college shifted from being a privilege to a necessity is the moment that it was permanently debased. Students with little-to-no interest in academics are being shoved through our higher education system, only to receive their diploma and then ignore scholarship for the rest of their lives. This is wasteful and unnecessary. Yet universal college attendance remains so ingrained in the public consciousness that to question the college-for-all model is to commit educational blasphemy. With any luck, however, the public spotlight may reveal the cracks in this ideological damn. Increasingly, individuals are attempting to bypass the standard four-year college experience and establish alternative paths to gainful employment. The future of post-secondary education will be determined by their successes and failures, and by the degree to which society as a whole questions the necessity of college.