If you are a Theory 1 person, you worry that, with so many Americans going to college, the bachelor’s degree is losing its meaning, and soon it will no longer operate as a reliable marker of productive potential. Increasing public investment in higher education with the goal of college for everyone—in effect, taxpayer-subsidized social promotion—is thwarting the operation of the sorting mechanism. Education is about selection, not inclusion.If you are friendly toward Theory 2, on the other hand, you worry that the competition for slots in top-tier colleges is warping educational priorities. You see academic tulip mania: students and their parents are overvaluing a commodity for which there are cheap and plentiful substitutes. The sticker price at Princeton or Stanford, including room and board, is upward of fifty thousand dollars a year. Public colleges are much less expensive—the average tuition is $7,605—and there are also many less selective private colleges where you can get a good education, and a lot more faculty face time, without having to spend every minute of high school sucking up to your teachers and reformatting your résumé. Education is about personal and intellectual growth, not about winning some race to the top.…It’s possible, though, that the higher education system only looks as if it’s working. The process may be sorting, students may be getting access, and employers may be rewarding, but are people actually learning anything? Two recent books suggest that they are not. They suggest it pretty emphatically.
I would have surely loved the intellectual environment of college. But I’ve found that certain technical work, the kind you do with your hands in the outdoors, can possibly net you between one and two thousand dollars a week. My brother was telling me that some of his friends are promising him that a plum bartending job can get you even more than that. Even so, I’m casting an appreciative eye on the possibility of sharing a house with two or three other people, all of us making roughly four hundred a week, which would take care of everything we need and most of what we want, while allowing plenty of time and energy for things like, well, a genuine passion for intellectual pursuits. (Another friend was telling me that working an overnight stocking job allows him far more leisure for his writing than he ever would have had in academia.) A good life is very much in reach, even – especially – if you do an end run around the system.