But wait. While they play the conventional game of aspiration, certain scholars and economists, and hundreds of thousands of "concerned citizens" have initiated a different debate, and the debate is growing.
They're talking about the changes in university life and whether we should continue up the garden path worn bare over the decades. The debate is over the "higher education bubble," a phrase popularized by Glenn Reynolds, a distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee, who compares what's happening in higher education to what happened when housing became a feverish exercise in speculation.
"Bubbles form when too many people expect values to go up forever," Reynolds says. "Bubbles burst when there are no longer enough excessively optimistic and ignorant folks to fuel them. And there are signs that this is beginning to happen already where education is concerned." With so much fat in the system the knowledge protein may not be enough to produce the intellectual muscle needed for a prosperous life in the 21st century. Like fast food and high-energy drinks, empty calories offer only temporary highs.
"The college presidents with their $1 million-plus salaries and bloated administrative staffs, the whole system of tenure has turned out to be as much a recipe for intellectual conformity as it is a fiscal nightmare," observes the New Criterion, a magazine that closely follows the politicization of the university.
In the decade after 2001, the number of administrators grew 50 times faster than the number of instructors, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A decline in the hours spent in teaching by tenured professors coincides with sharply increasing tuition fees to pay for luxury dorms, dining halls and gyms that have little to do with actual learning but everything to do with bulking up the academic bureaucracy.
With tightening family budgets, the high debt that accompanies students to college and an increasing public reckoning of diminishing value, college becomes a risky investment. Hundreds of parents are concluding that it may not be worth it.