The Decline (and Fall?) of College

Universities could go the way of the Roman Empire. But they don’t have to.

“A majority of Americans don’t think a college degree is worth the cost,” wrote Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Belkin in late March. That revelation was inspired by the results of a survey of over 1,000 adults by the highly respected research organization NORC (formerly National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago, in conjunction with WSJ.

Worse yet for colleges, the proportion of Americans with unfavorable assessments of an undergraduate degree’s worth has been rising steadily and rather considerably over the past decade and probably longer. A decade ago, an already worrisome 40 percent thought colleges were “not worth the cost because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” Now that proportion has risen to 56 percent.

At one time, public dissatisfaction with college was far stronger among Republicans, rural citizens, and males than among Democrats, urban dwellers, and females. But even here the data are discouraging for universities, with significant upticks in negative reactions from previously supportive groups. To colleges, the most frightening trend should be that younger (near college-age) adults have become markedly less fervent believers in the positive economic advantages of a college degree.

Near-college-age adults have become less fervent believers in the economic advantages of a college degree.Probably the most significant spokesperson for the higher-education community is Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council of Education, who concedes the new data are “sobering … and in some ways a wake-up call.”

To be sure, the operational impact of this negative attitudinal change no doubt varies considerably across the higher-education landscape. I doubt the administration and faculty at Harvard or Stanford are worrying much, but employees at mid- or lower-reputation schools should be concerned, as should present and prospective students and those marketing the bonds with which universities finance capital improvements and other needs. On the latter point, in December, Fitch Ratings indicated it “anticipates a deteriorating credit environment for U.S. Public Finance Higher Education in 2023 relative to 2022.”

Edward Gibbon took a couple of decades and six volumes to depict the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, most of which occurred over 300 or so years in the Christian era. The modern history of American higher education suggests its own decline may be far shorter and, optimistically, could even be a transitory phenomenon. The erosion of American higher education might soon reverse itself and lead to ever greater growth and human accomplishment, not to mention prosperity for the advanced learning communities that dot the American landscape.

Yet, as a sometime teacher of the economic history of the ancient world, I see certain similarities between American higher ed and the fall of Rome. For example, the Roman Empire overextended militarily, while colleges have overextended educationally, reaching out to marginal students without the aptitude or the desire for higher learning.

The Roman Empire’s decline occurred in a fiscally precarious era, which featured an early version of deficit financing (debasing its currency, the denarius) not too dissimilar to America’s massive debt issuances to finance today’s bread and circuses.

Gibbon believed that the rise of a new theology, Christianity, was a disrupting influence that weakened Rome, just as the rise of wokeness in the universities is arguably destroying whole learning environments arising from the free but peacefully disputed expression of ideas.

The costs of higher education have risen, while the perceived benefits have declined.It is not inevitable or even probable that American higher education will disappear like the Roman Empire. After all, America is a geographic entity not likely to vanish anytime soon, and organized higher learning has existed through war, peace, and famine for hundreds of years, maybe thousands if one reaches back to Socrates or his student Plato.

That’s enough history. What explains the deteriorating public perception of American higher education, and what are its consequences? Executive summary: The costs of higher education have risen, while the perceived benefits have declined as higher education has become a very risky investment.

Let me give a personal example. When I began teaching in 1965 at my very typical state institution, Ohio University, the in-state tuition fee was $450 a year, or $4,298 in February 2023 dollars (using the Consumer Price Index-U). The tuition today is $13,352, a more than tripling after adjusting for inflation.

For elite private schools, the numbers are even worse. The undergraduate tuition the year I entered Northwestern University in 1958 was $795, or $8,276 in current dollars. The current listed fee is $62,391, nearly eight times as much (and that excludes some additional mandatory fees to finance student government, attendance at athletic events, and “student health”).

While it is at least plausible that the quality of the educational product has grown enormously over time, my sense is that this has, in fact, not happened. Indeed, maybe just the opposite has occurred given the watering down of the curriculum and the prevalence of grade inflation.

To be sure, tuition discounting, known by most Americans as “scholarships,” has grown over time, as well. But, on balance, the real cost of attending college has soared for most Americans, growing even more than their incomes. While nearly everything else in life has become less burdensome to purchase in modern times because of rising incomes, higher education is an exception.

The American public is becoming increasingly aware that college is a risky investment. Roughly 36 percent of entering full-time students at baccalaureate colleges do not earn a degree within six years. Moreover, of those who do, about 40 percent of them become what the New York Federal Reserve Bank appropriately calls “underemployed” for a meaningful time after college, taking jobs traditionally filled by those with lesser educations.

Public skepticism about college leads politicians and philanthropists to be less supportive.What many in higher education don’t realize is that Ted Mitchell is right: These polling data are ominous results for higher education.

With very rare exceptions, American colleges and universities are financially dependent on third parties—individuals other than their immediate customers and producers. For some schools, alumni donors are important, but nearly every school, including so-called “private” ones, directly or indirectly derives much of its income from the public (some of it indirectly through tuition fees obscenely inflated by federal financial assistance programs).

Not only does public skepticism about college lead directly to fewer college applications, but it indirectly leads politicians and philanthropists to be less supportive, contributing importantly to continuing woes for America’s colleges and universities.

The way forward, it seems to me, is for American colleges and universities to regain the confidence of the people that they have lost. That can be done only by focusing once again on educational excellence. This will require colleges to stop worrying about how to maximize revenue by enrolling students who have little interest in college-level work. It will also require universities to jettison their obsession with “diversity,” which has done much to turn them away from worthwhile curricula and the hiring of the best possible faculty.

Richard K. Vedder is a distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a board member of the National Association of Scholars, and the author of Restoring the Promise: Higher Education in America.