People make major investment decisions when they are choosing colleges, but with minimal information about quality and fit. Meanwhile flagship public universities, which rely on tuition to offset diminished public subsidies, condone Greek systems that appeal to many affluent families but also incubate cultures of dangerous play. The so-called party pathway through college is an all-encompassing lifestyle characterized by virtually nonstop socializing, often on the male-controlled turf of fraternity houses. Substance abuse and sexual assault are common consequences.
Even at the schools where the party pathway is carefully policed, life on a residential campus can be a psychological strain. A substantial body of research demonstrates that first-generation college students, those from low-income families and racial minorities are particularly at risk for feelings of exclusion, loneliness and academic alienation. The costs of leaving college can be large for everyone: lost tuition, loan debt and a subtle but consequential diminishment of self-esteem.
Rethinking the expectation that applicants to selective colleges be fresh out of high school would go far in reducing risk for young people while better protecting everyone’s college investment. Some of this rethinking is already underway. Temporarily delaying college for a year or two after high school is now becoming respectable among the admissions gatekeepers at top schools. Massive online open courses (MOOCs) and other forms of online learning make it possible to experience fragments of an elite education at little or no cost.