That was the question being examined last Wednesday in Chicago, in a formal, Oxford-style debate sponsored by Intelligence Squared US, a recent American import of an English organization that sponsors academic debates among the top thinkers on various public policy issues. Each side debates, an audience votes, and a winner is determined by who has won the most votes. But the larger point, of course, is to raise the level of discussion of these issues and to expose the public to some arguments that they haven't heard before on these contentious subjects.
Appearing on the PRO side of the Do Too Many Kids Go to College? question was Peter Thiel. Peter Thiel, besides being the co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, has established the Thiel Fellowships to pay up to $100,000 to up to 20 young people or teams NOT to go to college, but to invest in their entrepreneurial ideas instead (for more information, read my earlier post). Thiel argues that college costs have gotten way out of hand, landing students with excessive loan burdens that restrict their future options. In the debate, he pointed out that, adjusting for inflation, college costs have gone up 300% since 1980--more than any other cost, including health care, housing costs, taxes, etc. He also believes many are better served if they get some life experience first, then go to college with those lessons in the real world under their belts.
Also on the PRO side was Charles Murray, co-author of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, about the role of IQ in the class structure of the US. He maintained his controversial tone, such as this quote of his from the debate:
Almost everybody needs more education after high school. What they don't need is this fraudulent, destructive, antediluvian thing called a PA. The thesis of my argument is really that the BA is the work of the devil.
On the CON side was Vivek Wadhwa, who writes for the Washington Post and Bloomberg Business Week while serving as the Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University and a Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School. He discussed this in an international perspective, and argued that the outflow of jobs to other countries, such as India, with a high percentage of college graduates would only intensify if we don't continue to graduate our students from college.
Joining him for the CON arguments was Henry Bienen, the former President of Northwestern University. He pointed that while unemployment for college graduates may be at an all-time high, it is still only one third of the rate of unemployment for those lacking a college degree.
If you would like to watch the entire debate, or to read a transcript, you can see it on the Intelligence Squared US website.