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What Critics of American Higher Education Get Wrong

With politicians, activists, and major publications seeking to take US higher education down a peg, Americans could be forgiven for thinking that a college degree is no longer worth the trouble or expense. In fact, post-secondary education continues to be the most powerful engine of economic opportunity and mobility.

BERKELEY – Higher education is under attack in the United States. University presidents have been ousted, big donors are revolting, and the mainstream media is questioning the value of a post-secondary education altogether. “Americans have lost faith in the value of college,” The Wall Street Journal claims. “The math doesn’t work for a growing number of families.”

While students and parents are right to ask about the return on their investment in a college education, much of this criticism should be recognized for what it is: a politically charged red herring. The data show that a college education is still a wise investment and a key driver of economic opportunity and mobility. 

Most of the criticism is focused on Ivy League institutions, but those highly selective schools enroll less than 0.3% of the more than 20 million students enrolled in US universities. The top 146 research universities account for only about 6% of total full-time enrollment (including both undergraduates and doctoral students).