Colleges and universities with essentially open admissions enroll the vast majority of US students, yet until very recently they received only a small proportion of the social-science attention given to higher education. Academic researchers, policymakers, journalists, and the general public often are attracted to the glamour of academically selective schools – the handful of "elite" institutions to which admission is a coveted prize. This attention bias in favor of elites poses important intellectual, political, and policy problems as we consider the state of higher education in the US. It makes a small number of statistically atypical schools the implicit standard by which many others appear as lesser imitations. It fogs policy discussions with outdated conceptions of “traditional” college students on "traditional" campuses. It distracts many researchers, philanthropists, and elected officials from understanding and responding to sweeping changes in the organization of US higher education. In light of the Obama administration’s ambitious new goals for college attainment, the need for researchers to assess higher education without distortion is especially important.
Long and still the envy of the world, our national higher education system was built during some of the most prosperous and optimistic decades in American history. In the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s, the general fiscal health of government, the baby boom, and the geopolitical context of the Cold War brought investment in higher education on an unprecedented scale. In 2011 the dream of a college education for all Americans remains vital, but how to pay for and deliver it is no longer clear. The federal government and most state legislatures face chronic budget deficits. The costs of healthcare, eldercare, and infrastructure maintenance are soaring. The price of college – an investment whose lifetime returns remain impressive – grows at a rate almost beyond comprehension. If the dream of a college degree is going to remain viable for the majority of Americans, then college will need to be delivered more efficiently, affordably, and democratically than it ever has before. Yet currently available tools – enhanced counseling, streamlined student aid procedures, remedial/developmental education programs, and incentive - based financing – yield only modest and incremental improvements in rates of college completion. They fall far short of the dramatic changes required to significantly boost completion while lowering costs.