I commented recently in Resources To Spare that a liberal arts education may increasingly be a sociobiological sign of an abundance of resources. It may have, in fact, always have been such a signal, though obscured by the GI Bill generation's capitalizing on the transition from a 1930's elite being the main beneficiaries of such an education to the general accessibility in the 1950's and beyond.
I am not prepared to cover the waterfront on this topic, but I thought the changes I have observed while educating my own children might be interesting.
My first two sons, who went to college between 1997 and 2006, are absolutely the sort of student that such an education was intended for. When I was growing up, it was never if you go to college, but when you go to college, and I followed through on that with Jonathan and Ben without much thought. We started saving for it as soon as they were born, and were able to pay for it entirely as they went along. What we called normal life in my culture - and many still do. I was certainly not aware then of any sea change in how children would be educated.
But look at the narrowing already in place: the college they chose was one of the 56 from the National Review list of colleges that provided a core-curriculum, western-tradition, liberal arts education; it was inexpensive - with academic scholarships, we paid $13K/year for each; it also provided a solid, and sometimes intense, Christian tradition as well; and my first two were excellent students, so the risk of throwing the money down the drain was lessened.
Enter Romanians. We of course had saved nothing for their education, as we hadn't expected them. They were less-good students, especially in such subjects as literature, history, and philosophy - no scholarship, no National Review list for them. We were still in of-course-you-send-your-kids-to-college mode, and John Adrian started at a very conservative Christian school, with lower entrance requirements, in Business. And now it's $20K/year and rising. And he works hard enough to get by but not excel. So when he comes back and starts going to school online, one course at a time, it makes entire sense. I am seeing college in a different light now, more in terms of what the majority of 20-year-olds are like rather than what the exceptional ones are like.
Now comes Chris, who has no interest in college, barely scraped by in HS, and wants to go to a technical school in automotive mechanics. 18 months (theoretically), no dorms, no sports, no coffee-shop discussions, no spiritual aspect, and no potential wives who are going to be teachers or librarians or microbiologists.
Kyle is now a freshman in HS. College for him will be $40K/year, and he is between my first two and latter two in terms of fit for traditional, ivy-covered, academicia.
The mold is broken. I'm not seeing my original vision of normal education as sensible for him. If he were more of a reader, and it were half the price, we might still revert to that. But sending him under these circumstances - as many parents still will - is now a luxury good, a signal of excess in resources, either ours or his, to fit him for a particular class. Doesn't look likely.
It could change. His oldest brother, my nephew who occasionally comments here, was an indifferent student in high school who found his feet late but is now going for a PhD in engineering. That may still be Kyle's path. But I think we are looking to nontraditional postsecondary education at this point - and Kyle is (in this way) very typical of his generation. The old model is dying.
Update: Wow. Right on schedule, WSJ has a review of Craig Brandon's The Five Year Party, describing the deterioration in liberal-arts education. Brandon was an instructor at nearby Keene State College.
Let me add another bit to this. It is conventional wisdom in this culture that young people cannot be sheltered and must have opportunity to "make their own decisions" - which often means making their peer groups' decisions - about sex, alcohol, and how hard they want to work at things. Fair enough. But where is the evidence that 18 is the best age to start that? It certainly wasn't for me.