While most Americans do not have college degrees, the percentage of Americans holding a Bachelors degree (or greater) has been steadily increasing (reaching 30% in 2012). One reason is degree inflation: people now need college degrees to qualify for jobs that once only required a high school diploma. Another reason is the fact that a college degree is supposed to increase a person’s earning potential. To a lesser degree, there has been a push for people to get at least some college education. In fact, President Obama has repeatedly pushed for this. In general, the assumption held by many people is that people should go to college if they can.
While I am a university professor, I do think that it is worthwhile to address the question of whether or not everyone should go to college. Not surprisingly, I think people should become as educated as possible. However, this is rather different from attending college and this distinction is sometimes lost.
There are, of course, the somewhat cynical answers to this question. It might be claimed that everyone should not go to college because some people are simply not intelligent enough to go to college. While honesty compels me to admit that there is some truth to this, honesty also compels me to admit that people generally overestimate the amount of intelligence required to get through college. While a certain level of intelligence is required, getting through college is often more a matter of persistence and showing up than of intellectual might.
It might also be claimed that everyone should not go to college because not everyone can afford the cost of college. On the one hand, this is a reasonable answer. After all, people who cannot afford to go to college should not go to college, just as someone who cannot afford an expensive sports car should not buy one. On the other hand, the question could be looked at another way. To use an analogy, consider the question of whether a person should seek treatment for a disease. Even if the person cannot afford it (and thus, in one sense, should not seek treatment), it still makes sense to say that they should seek treatment for the disease. Likewise, even people who cannot afford college might be people who should be going to college. That said, the cost of college is clearly something that a person should consider when deciding whether or not she should go to college.
Continuing with the matter of cost, a rather obvious answer is that not everyone should go to college because, as a practical matter, it would not be possible for society to provide the educational resources needed for everyone to attend college. The obvious reply to this is that countries like the United States do provide universal public K-12 education and hence it would presumably not be impossible to extend the education system to cover an additional four years, especially if people are expected to pay at least some of the cost themselves. However, even if society committed to making it so everyone could go to college, this does not entail that everyone should go to college.
In terms of arguing why everyone should go to college, one option is to make use of the arguments as to why everyone should complete high school. These include the usual arguments involving being educated for employment and being educated to be citizens of a democratic state. There is, of course, an easy way to counter these sorts of arguments. As a counter, it can be argued that for most (or at least some) people a high school education would suffice for these purposes and hence not everyone should go to college.
However, even if high school would suffice for some people, it can be contended that this does not prove that not everyone should go to college. After all, the fact that basic food, water and shelter would keep a person alive does not entail that everyone should not have more than the very basics of survival. Likewise the fact that a high school education provides the basics does not disprove the claim that everyone should go to college. By analogy, just as everyone (or almost everyone) would benefit from having more than the basics, the same would hold true for college as well.
The obvious reply is that the fact that everyone would benefit from having more than the basics does not entail that everyone should have more than the basics. Likewise, even if everyone would benefit from college, it does not follow that everyone should go to college. After all, this would require that people should do what would be beneficial for them and perhaps this is not the case. There is also the concern that college might not benefit everyone. If this is the case, then it would seem reasonable to claim that everyone should not go to college. On the face of it, this would seem to be the most fruitful avenue of consideration.
In general, it could be argued that people should go to college if doing so would be beneficial to them. As noted above, it could still be countered that even if something is beneficial, it does not follow that people should do it (the usual “you cannot get an ought from an is” line of attack can be used here). However, it seems sensible to lay aside this somewhat esoteric problem and focus on practical matters. In a practical sense, it seems reasonable to hold that people should make a decision about whether to go to college or not based on the benefits relative to the costs.
In practical terms, the main question for most people would be whether or not a college degree would result in a better job, which is often defined in terms of better pay. In general, a college degree results in better pay than a high school degree. However, there are well paying jobs that do not require a college degree and thus the money motivation does not yield the result that everyone should go to college (especially when the cost of college is factored in). There is also the matter of job satisfaction: there are people who rather enjoy jobs that do not require a college degree. Some of these jobs do require a great deal of skill, education and intelligence and they should not be looked down on as inferior to the jobs that require a college degree.
There is also the matter of the role of college in preparing a person to be a citizen of a democratic state. However, as was noted above, perhaps a high school education suffices for this. After all, people with college degrees do not seem to thus be automatically better citizens than people with high school degrees.
As a final point, there is the value of college in terms of developing as a person and other intangibles such as knowledge for the sake of knowledge. There are two obvious counters to this. The first is that people do go to college without college contributing very much to their personal development. The second is that people obviously can undergo personal development and learn a great deal without a college degree. That is, as noted above, a person can be well educated without having a formal college degree. Although most of my friends are college educated, I also have many friends who did not complete or even attend college. However, they are generally well-educated.
Thus, it would seem that it is not the case that everyone should go to college. This is not to say that college is without value, but it is to say that not everyone needs to walk the same path to their life goals and their education.