How Is the ‘College Is a Scam’ Narrative Influencing Who Chooses to Go...

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How Is the ‘College Is a Scam’ Narrative Influencing Who Chooses to Go to Campus?

By Jeffrey R. Young     Mar 12, 2024

How Is the ‘College Is a Scam’ Narrative Influencing Who Chooses to Go to Campus?

This article is part of the collection: Doubting College: A Podcast Series.

The value of college is something that people used to pretty much agree on. In 2013, a little over a decade ago, the number of young people who thought a college degree was very important was 74 percent, according to a Gallup poll. By 2019 that had fallen to just 41 percent.

So what is happening here?

Of course there are many factors, but in this same period of time there have been a growing number of messages in popular culture giving highly skeptical views of college. The idea that “college is a scam” has become something of a meme on social media platforms like YouTube.

How are these critiques shaping the popular perception of higher ed, and are they changing who is going to college, or who wants to go?

To help us dig into these questions, we invited three experts with rich perspectives for this week’s episode of the EdSurge Podcast:

  • Shalin Jyotishi, a senior advisor of education, labor, and the future of work at New America. He recently served as the first civil society fellow in artificial intelligence and machine learning at the World Economic Forum, where he led research on AI, job quality and work augmentation.
  • Ben Wildavsky, author of the new book, “The Career Arts: Making the Most of College, Credentials, and Connections.” He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Virginia’s School of Education and Human Development.
  • And Roy Spence, chairman and co-founder of the global advertising agency GSD&M. His firm is the one that came up with the famous anti-littering campaign in the 1980s, “Don’t Mess With Texas,” so he is experienced in influencing public narratives. Spence is also the founder of the nonprofit Make It Movement, whose goal is to encourage young people to seek college or other high-quality educational options after high school.

A key reason that attacks on the value of college have resonated with so many people, the panelists noted, is that many parents of traditional-college-aged students had failed attempts with higher ed themselves.

“The Achilles’ heel of what I think is overall a very successful higher ed system is we have very, very bad completion rates,” said Wildavsky. “And so that I think contributes to the fact that you have a lot of people who have not had a good experience. Forty million Americans have some college and no degree, and that ends up with the worst of both worlds, which is debt and no degree … a lot of people have not had a good experience.”

One takeaway was that as young people hear the message that they need to go to college, they may not understand the many shapes and sizes of college available to them.

“I definitely think when we talk about ‘college as a scam’ and that narrative, we need to disaggregate what we mean by college,” said Jyotishi, of New America. “A lot of people think that going to college means getting a degree. In a lot of cases it doesn't have to be that way. Community colleges — and increasingly a lot of universities — offer non-degree credentials, microcredentials, certificate programs or industry certification preparation courses. And colleges offer apprenticeship programs.

“So there's sort of this false choice at play where people think they have to choose between liberal arts or career readiness. And at a lot of colleges, you can have both. And I think the more we can have that incorporated in the narrative, the more helpful it would be.”

The danger, these experts say, is that some people who would benefit from college are being dissuaded from giving higher education serious consideration.

And getting the word out may end up involving not just a new message about the value of a college, but using different messengers. For instance, Jyotishi sees labor unions as an untapped way to help inform members about the diverse offerings from colleges that might help them level up or change careers.

This is the third episode of a podcast series we’re calling Doubting College, where we’re exploring: What happened to the public belief in college? And how is that shaping the choices young people are making about their futures?

The conversation was recorded live last week in front of an audience at the SXSW EDU festival in Austin.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.

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