Is college worth the price? Oh absolutely! In the late 1970s, a college degree earned you about 25 percent more than did just a high-school diploma. In the late 1980s, a college degree earned you about 50 percent more than did just a high-school diploma. In 2000, a college degree earned you 70 percent more than did just a high-school diploma.[1]

On the other hand, if a student attends a college or university that is ranked in the bottom 25 percent of all colleges and universities, then they are likely—on average—to earn less than a high-school graduate who did not attend a college or university. But which are these schools? Google “ranking of colleges and universities” and the next thing you know, you’re in a morass. What I’m—defensively—guessing is that the list includes a lot of for-profit schools which the Federal government is intermittently dragging down a dirt road chained behind a pick-up truck.  Still, if you think about it, there are a bunch of schools where a BA earns you just as much as not having gone to college, and a bunch more schools where a BA earns you somewhat more than not having gone to college in the first place. All of this costs students and/or parents money.

Not everyone is a loser in this stupid game, but the success of some disguises the relative failure of many. Currently, the average annual income for college graduates ten years after crossing the stage to the cheers of family members is $35,000.[2] On the other hand, after the same span of time, Ivy League graduates average $70,000.[3] So, all you’ve got to do is work real hard in high-school, get into one of the Ivies, and you’re on Easy Street, right? Well, it turns out that “no, man, there’s games beyond the game,” as “Stringer” Bell advised Avon Barksdale on “The Wire.” For the top ten percent of Ivy League graduates, the average income ten years out is $200,000 a year. We’re talking about 31-32 year-olds here.

Why did the gap between a high school diploma and a BA open? Did the economy develop in a way that created an increased demand for whatever higher order intellectual skills and contextual knowledge one acquires in college? Did the economy develop in a way that eliminated well-paying jobs that did not require a college education? Did the high-schools decline as institutions of foundational learning, shifting the burden to colleges?

Well, yes. Back in April 2008, American high-schools trailed many other countries in their graduation rate. Norway (100 percent), Germany (99 percent), South Korea (96 percent), Russia (87 percent), and Italy (81), among others, all out-performed the United States (75 percent).[4] In June 2015, many young Americans graduated from high-school. Their average composite SAT score was 1490 out of a possible 2400. That is the lowest level since 2005. The country has been pursuing essentially the same educational reform policy under different names (No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top) all those years. It has achieved nothing. Furthermore, the commonly-accepted bar for college readiness is 1550. OK, not everyone needs to go to college (regardless of what President Obama once hoped for) and it’s only an average. So, how many high-school graduates were ready for college? Of all students, 42 percent scored at least 1550. However, only 16 percent of African-Americans scored at least 1550.[5]

The problems are with the schools and with parenting. Sad—and rare–to say. Read to your kids. Let them see you reading.   Praise hard work. You know, Puritanism.

[1] “Noted,” The Week, 14 January 2005, p. 14.

[2] When welders are making $100K a year.

[3] “Noted,” The Week, 25 September 2015, p. 16.

[4] “Noted,” The Week, 4 April 2008, p. 16.

[5] “Noted,” The Week, 18 September 2015, p. 16.