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Posted at 10:40 PM ET, 03/14/2012

Too much college? History suggests otherwise.

I hear we are overdoing college. Former senator Rick Santorum says President Obama is a snob for insisting higher education should be everyone’s goal. Some of us blame high-school dropout rates on students tuning out the pro-college assemblies and loudspeaker announcements.

It was that way in 1943 when an Army survey found that only 7 percent of enlisted men expected to go back to school full-time after the war and only 17 percent wanted to go part-time. Even when the new G.I. Bill — the most generous education law ever passed — began paying full tuition and some living expenses, few seemed interested. Only 15,000 veterans were using it 15 months after it passed.

The Saturday Evening Post declared it a failure, said Suzanne Mettler, in her book “Soldiers to Citizens: The G.I. Bill and the Making of the Greatest Generation.” The magazine said: “The guys aren’t buying it. They say ‘education’ means ‘books,’ any way you slice it, and that’s for somebody else.”

We journalists are often wrong, but those two sentences might have set a record for shortsightedness.

“By the time World War II veterans’ eligibility period for G.I. Bill use ended,” Mettler wrote, “a stunning total of 7.8 million veterans — fully 51 percent of all who had served in the military — had attended school or obtained training on the G.I. Bill. Among them, 2.2 million veterans attended colleges and universities, and 5.6 million pursued vocational training, on-the-job training or other subcollege education.”

We seem to have wandered into another era of doubt about the worth of college. We see statistics showing that college graduates’ lifetime earnings are far more than those of high-school graduates. We note the need for more of the research, analysis and presentation skills taught in college to energize the economy. But the failure of state universities and community colleges to fill the needs of millions of eager students gets little attention in the presidential campaign.

College students in degree programs find that courses essential for them to graduate on time are filled up. A study by Columbia University researcher Judith Scott-Clayton shows that thousands of students who would do well in community college courses are diverted to remedial classes they don’t need by crude placement tests.

The notion that certain people just aren’t suited to college survives, even though the success of the G.I. Bill robbed that bias of most of its intellectual respectability. A Newsweek headline after the G.I. Bill passed said: “College Standards May Suffer,” something I hear frequently when plans are offered to open college to more students whose parents never went.

Professors today fret over scholastic values being trampled by those business courses full of students who just want to make a buck. The same view was expressed by Harvard University official Wilbur J. Bender, surveying a campus in 1954 full of veterans who never went to Choate, Groton and St. Marks:

“There is a kind of unhealthy determination to get ahead, a grim competitive spirit, an emphasis on individual careerism and success which is disturbing,” he said. “The lights are burning very late and there is not much leisurely talk or fellowship or group spirit.”

Obama and some governors have suggested programs to give low-income college students the courses they need and the respect they crave. But fears of destructive government debt make those bills unlikely to pass.

We are doing more for veterans headed for college now than we did in the 1970s when I returned from Vietnam. That’s good. But today’s veterans are such a tiny slice of society. The outpouring of college student support after World War II fueled the unprecedented surge of the U.S. economy and its education system. This would be a good time to remember that before we start slipping back.

By  |  10:40 PM ET, 03/14/2012

 
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