The American debate over whether a college education is worth it began when the colonists arrived from Europe and founded "New College" (later renamed Harvard University) in 1636. With 20.4 million US college students in fall 2017, and over $1.5 trillion in total student debt as of May 2018, the debate continues today.
1902 Puck cartoon illustrating the prospect of too many college degrees.
Source: Library of Congress, "A Prospect of Higher Education," www.loc.gov (accessed Sep. 26, 2013)
People who argue that college is worth it contend that college graduates have higher employment rates, bigger salaries, and more work benefits than high school graduates. They say college graduates also have better interpersonal skills, live longer, have healthier children, and have proven their ability to achieve a major milestone.
People who argue that college is not worth it contend that the debt from college loans is too high and delays graduates from saving for retirement, buying a house, or getting married. They say many successful people never graduated from college and that many jobs, especially trades jobs, do not require college degrees.
College in America, 1600s - 1800s
Colonial America produced nine colleges that still operate: Harvard University (1636), the College of William & Mary (1693), Yale University (1701), Princeton University (1746), Columbia University (1754), Brown University (1764), Dartmouth College (1769), Rutgers University (1766), and the University of Pennsylvania (1740 or 1749). These universities were funded by the colony or England and usually catered to a specific religious denomination such as Congregational or Presbyterian (Puritan). Primary and secondary school systems were not yet established so "college students" were sometimes boys as young as fourteen or fifteen years old and were admitted to receive preparatory education with the assumption that they would matriculate to college-level courses.
Colonial colleges were mainly founded and attended by wealthy Puritans, and followed the models of British and Scottish universities, which focused on general education and moral character. The goal of the college was to produce Christian gentlemen who would inherit family businesses, remain within the Congregational or Presbyterian (Puritan) faith, and be responsible leaders in the new world. Colonial college tuition costs and the loss of an able-bodied man from the family farm or business made the prestige and social status conferred by college unattainable for most families. About 1% of white males aged 18-21 attended college and students frequently left college after their first or second year, with no "dropout" stigma. Out of 35 students, Yale conferred nine bachelor’s degrees by 1711. Colonial colleges excluded women but sometimes had "Indian schools," to spread Puritanism in Native American communities for religious indoctrination purposes. The American Revolution (1775-1783) drained colleges of students who became soldiers and buildings that became barracks and of the funds from England resulting in the closing of many colleges postwar.
1905 women's cooking class at the University of Arizona.
Source: University of Arizona, "UA History & Traditions: 1905. The Cooking Class at Work," www.arizona.edu (accessed Sep. 26, 2013)
The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries created a college-building boom, increasing the number of schools from 25 colleges in 1800 to 241 colleges in 1860; increasing the variety of schools to include seminaries, scientific schools, military service academies, and teaching schools; and increasing the programs of study to include medicine, law, military science, and agriculture. State universities came into prominence beginning with the University of North Carolina (1795) and the University of Georgia (1801). In the spring of 1833, Oberlin Collegiate Institute (now Oberlin College) admitted women to a "Ladies Course" program and in 1837 admitted four women to the baccalaureate program, three of whom graduated in 1841 with degrees.
The 1862 Morrill Land Grant Act gave federally controlled land to states to open "land grant" colleges, which were required to focus on "useful arts" like agriculture, mechanics, mining, and military instruction and thus often included "A&M" (Agricultural & Mechanical) in the names. The idea of a "useful" education also created schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1851. Many craftsmen who relied upon apprenticeships were skeptical of college training and distrusted scholars and scientists. A college degree was still seen by many as a social marker rather than a marker of educational attainment.
By 1865 most Southern colleges ceased offering classes because the American Civil War caused significant physical damage to many colleges while others were made into hospitals and shelters for soldiers and many Southern students and faculty left college for the Confederate Army. In 1870, the number of colleges was 560 (up from just 9 colleges at the American Revolution).
June 3, 1926 cover of Life magazine showing a "flapper" college graduate lighting a cigarette with her diploma.
Source: Words and Eggs, "Throwback Thursday: 1920s Illustrations of John Held, Jr.," www.wordsandeggs.wordpress.com, Sep. 16, 2009
College in the Early 1900s
The early 1900s saw institutions created to educate groups excluded by traditional colleges: women, blacks, immigrants, and Roman Catholics. Black colleges remained restricted to grade-school and agricultural- or industrial-focused instruction with little college-level education offered. Iowa State University was the first co-ed land grant college, though women remained segregated and were expected to study "domestic science" or similar topics. Colleges were built in the South to keep Southern sons "far from the dangerous notions circulating at a Harvard or a Yale," with high tuitions and a code of honor that included duels amongst students. "Hilltop colleges" in New England opened to cater to older working students training to be teachers or ministers. Colleges built on the emerging western frontier had small populations to support them and there were often less than a few hundred students who could attend the college. "Diploma mills" also popped up during this time, especially the "medical college," which frequently had no campus or faculty but would confer degrees in exchange for donations.
The goal of college attendance still was not completion of a bachelor's degree. Some students took two years of courses in order to earn an LI (license of instruction) certificate to teach public school but many did not complete the degree because, as explained by Roger L. Geiger, Distinguished Professor of Education at Pennsylvania State University, "there was nothing to be done with a bachelor’' degree that could not also be done without one."
By 1900, 5% (about 256,000) of 18-21 year old males attended college, up from 3.1% (32,364) in 1860 and 1% (1,237) in 1800. Students were normally accepted based on gender, religion, and race. Graduation rates continued to be low; about 30% of the1903 freshman class at Kentucky State College graduated, while Transylvania University averaged a 50% drop out rate in the first year and barely 10% graduated with a degree in four years.
Although tuition had seen no major increases, the price of college was still too high for the average family. For the 1907-1908 academic year, Brown University published an average tuition budget: $105 for tuition, $48 for "incidental fees," $60 for room, $150 for board, and $30 for books and lab fees; totaling $393 per year, or $9,535.67 in 2012 US dollars By 1910, "undergraduate life" came into prominence with mascots, school colors, college hymns, intercollegiate athletics, and other traditions.
World War I dropped enrollments on the east coast by 27-40% but only 10% of Stanford men left college for the war. In total, 540 colleges were made into training campuses for the Students’ Army Training Corps to train 125,000 men. Around this time the American Medical Association began lobbying for medical schools to require some college science (if not a completed college degree) for admission into medical schools, law schools followed Harvard Law School’s example to require baccalaureate degrees for admission, and seminaries were requiring at least a year of college.
Late 1970s college recruitment poster, "Work Smart NOT Hard"
Source: SLS Construction & Building Solutions, "My Take: Profoundly Disconnected, the Industry, & Me?," blog.sls-construction.com, July 9, 2013
After 1920 college students became associated with parties, gambling, and bathtub gin. But, such partying was tolerated because of the upward social mobility gained by making contacts and partying with the right crowd.
Between 1920 and 1945 secondary schools expanded, increasing the number of high school graduates, the number of college students from 250,000 to 1.3 million, and the percentage of college students from 5% to 15%. However, an 18-24 year old white person was four times more likely to attend college than a black person of the same age and women constituted about 40% of college enrollments but were still being trained in segregation as teachers, good wives, and mothers.
In the 1920s and 1930s, college tuition started to rise with one national survey showing tuition at $70 in 1920 and $133 in 1940, or from $793.29 to $2,148.31 in 2012 US dollars. In comparison, a 1940 new Pontiac car cost $483 ($7,074 in 2012 dollars).
US Colleges, WWII through the 1980s
After World War II colleges and universities moved toward advanced, selective programs and expanded the base of students admitted. Research universities, junior colleges (now called community colleges), and for-profit institutions thrived.
In the 1939-1940 school year, student enrollment was under 1.5 million nationally, but, by the 1949-1950 school year, student enrollment grew to 2.7 million. The 1944 GI Bill contributed to some of the enrollment gains and by the beginning of the 1945-1946 school year, 88,000 veterans were accepted into the program; by 1946, over one million were accepted; and by 1950, 14 million veterans were in the program. Women represented about 40% of enrollment in the 1939-1940 school year but that number dropped to 32% in 1950. Individual schools implemented honor programs, specialty seminars, study abroad, and smaller class sizes to attract more discerning students By 1960, national enrollment was at 3.6 million and at 7.9 million in 1970. Society became interested in the college lives of "Joe College" and "Betty Coed" and created the college ideal of graduating in four years, marrying the college sweetheart, and finding a good job.
The federal government created the Higher Education General Information Survey (HEGIS), later renamed the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), and collected data in the fall of 1968, the first time standardized data was collected about colleges and universities nationwide.
Pell Grants were introduced in 1972 and increased the number of students for whom higher education was possible. By 1978, the financial aid focus changed from grants to loans, increasing the amount of debt a graduating college student owned. In the 1975-1976 school year 75% of students received grants, 21% received loans compared to the 1984-1985 school year in which 29% of students received grants and 66% received loans.
Chart illustrating the unemployment rate for people with less than a high school diploma, a high school diploma, some college, and a bachelor's degree.
Source: Catherine Rampell, "College Is (Still) Worth It," www.nytimes.com, Feb. 1, 2013
The major shift in higher education during this time was the transition from mass higher education, expecting to educate 40-50% of high school graduates, to universal higher education, expecting to educate all high school graduates. The shift was seen in public school enrollments which accounted for about 75% of enrollments in 1970, up from the almost equal split between public and private colleges in 1950. Community colleges and technical institutes also gained students: from 82,000 in 1950 to 1.3 million in 1980.
Transfer students were accommodated, classes were offered at military bases, and courses were offered at extension sites for non-traditional students while colleges were opening to diverse student populations. Title IX (1972) and affirmative action demanded inclusive admission practices for women and black students.
The 1970s also saw the shift from higher education for education’s sake to a need for pre-professional studies and a translation to work after graduation. For many, to be considered middle-class or to get a middle-class job required a college degree.
The 1970s and 1980s brought questions of whether the return on a college degree was worth the investment. In 1971 a male college graduate earned 22% more than a high school graduate but by 1979 a college degree increased earnings by 13%. By 1987, the earning gap was 38%, which was an improvement but added doubts about the stability of higher education as an investment. The 1980s also brought a dramatic increase in the cost of college, which was rising faster than inflation and the average family income.
College Enrollment, Costs, and Purposes from 1990s to Present
The 1990s and 2000s saw a rise in enrollment and tuition costs, and a steadily lower unemployment rate for college graduates. College enrollment increased 11% between 1990 and 2000 and increased 37% from 2000 to 2010 to 21 million students. The average college tuition in the 1990-1991 school year was $10,620 and rose to $13,393 in 2000-2001. Between the 2000-2001 school year and the 2010-2011 school year, public college costs (tuition, room, and board) increased 42% to $18,133. The unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor's degree or higher in 1990 was 6.5% (compared to 24.9% for high school drop outs) and was 3.7% in 2000 (compared to 18.4% for high school drop outs). By 2010, the unemployment rate for college graduates increased to 5.5% while the rate for college dropouts was 17.3%
Infographic illustrating the attributes of the average recent college graduate.
A 2011 Pew Research survey showed 50% of college presidents said college is meant to "mature and grow intellectually," while 48% said college should "provide skills, knowledge and training to help… [students] succeed in the working world."
The number of colleges and universities grew from 1,851 in 1950 to 3,535 in 1990 to 6,900 in 2013. In the 1949-1950 school year 2.66 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities; by the 1989-1990 school year 13.54 million students were enrolled. In fall of 2013, 19.9 million students were enrolled in colleges and universities.
According to the US Census Bureau, 33.4% of the adult US population had a bachelor's degree or higher as of Mar. 30, 2017 (up from 28% in 2006), with 20.8% holding bachelor's degrees, 9.3% with associates degrees, 1.5% with professional degrees, and 1.9% with doctorates.  In 1940, when the US Census Bureau began collecting education data, only 4.6% of adults held bachelor's degrees.