If we’re hyperanxious about college access, costs, and returns, it is because we’re hyperanxious about the fissures in our social contract that college is supposed to patch up. There is a lot that higher education can do and a lot we should expect it to do. Higher education should absolutely incubate an educated, empathetic citizenry with critical-thinking skills. It should produce research that matters for the least well-off of us as well at it does the most well-off. It should make workers, but it should also make us more than mere workers.
In 2013, America went to college through the popular media imagination because we’re still hopeful that the promise of higher education is alive, for with it goes the promise of American mobility, opportunity and identity. But there is not much on the horizon that promises to redress the insecurity that has sharpened our focus on the value of higher education.