America’s higher education consensus is breaking up: responding to Paul Tough

Bryan Alexander
8 min readSep 27, 2023

What happens to academia and society if we stop thinking higher education is for everyone?

A new entry into this emerging line of thought comes from Paul Tough, who recently published a powerful article in the New York Times. “Americans Are Losing Faith in the Value of College. Whose Fault is That?” covers a lot of ground, and I’d like to engage with it here. He also spoke to the topic on a New York Times podcast.

Tough gets a lot of things right in this article, chiming in with my own work. He identifies the swerve away from “college for everyone,” a move that I’ve previously called the shattered consensus. He points to polls showing American support for higher education going down (here’s another example). He notes the decade-long enrollment decline. He catches how grad school can backfire economically (for students in some fields and/or schools).

Tough addresses the awful amount of student debt. He hits on rising tuition and fees, nicely including some variations on that often oversimplified topic. He correctly identifies the combination of taking college classes, getting into debt, and not graduating as one of the worst academic experiences a person can undertake. He also pays attention to the importance of major for lifetime earnings, the widening partisan divide over academia, and how college can play a role as a finishing school for the elite.

I was especially impressed by his evocation of the wealth premium, in contrast to the wage premium, as a good way of capturing college costs beyond opportunity costs:

Unlike the college wage premium, the college wealth premium looks at all your assets and all your debts: what you’ve got in the bank, whether you own a house, your student-loan balance. It addresses a simple but important question: How much net wealth does a typical college graduate accumulate over their life span, compared with that of a typical high school graduate?

You could think of the wealth premium as taking student debt and its impact more seriously than the wage premium does. Read into Tough’s article as he teases out the serious problems. Black and Hispanic students are most at risk of not earning a college bonus, once debt figures in. And grad school is suffering from decreasing returns, badly:

When the researchers looked at young Americans who had gone on to get a postgraduate degree…

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Bryan Alexander

Futurist, speaker, writer, educator. Author of the FTTE report, UNIVERSITIES ON FIRE, and ACADEMIA NEXT. Creator of The Future Trends Forum.